Monday, March 29, 2010

Long time back, I was awed by India’s brain drain as many so-called qualified people immigrated abroad. Software engineers, for long, have been dubbed super exports from India who graced and grubbed the US Silicon Valley. A few minutes back, I read a post on TechCrunch by an Indian-origin VC, Vivek Wadhwa about “reverse brain drain”. It seems a third of the Indian crowd, who showed up at a meeting, wanted to go back to India. So Vivek wonders: “Why would such talented people voluntarily leave Silicon Valley, a place that remains the hottest hotbed of technology innovation on Earth?” So Vivek’s team studied 1023 returnees to India and China. The findings are noteworthy:

"...workers returned in their prime: the average age of the Indian returnees was 30 and the Chinese was 33. They were really well educated: 51% of the Chinese held masters degrees and 41% had PhDs. Among Indians, 66% held a masters and 12% had PhDs. These degrees were mostly in management, technology, and science. Clearly these returnees are in the U.S. population’s educational top tier—precisely the kind of people who can make the greatest contribution to an economy’s innovation and growth. And it isn’t just new immigrants who are returning home, we learned. Some 27% of the Indians and 34% of the Chinese had permanent resident status or were U.S. citizens. That’s right—it’s not just about green cards.

What propelled them to return home? Some 84% of the Chinese and 69% of the Indians cited professional opportunities. And while they make less money in absolute terms at home, most said their salaries brought a “better quality of life” than what they had in the U.S. (There was also some reverse culture shock—complaints about congestion in India, say, and pollution in China.) When it came to social factors, 67% of the Chinese and 80% of the Indians cited better “family values” at home. Ability to care for aging parents was also cited, and this may be a hidden visa factor: it’s much harder to bring parents and other family members over to the U.S. than in the past. For the vast majority of returnees, a longing for family and friends was also a crucial element.

Now with many in US accusing immigrants of stealing their jobs away, this interest in getting back home may bring cheer.

But a growing body of evidence indicates that skilled foreign immigrants create jobs for Americans and boost our national competitiveness. More than 52% of Silicon Valley’s startups during the recent tech boom were started by foreign-born entrepreneurs. Foreign-national researchers have contributed to more than 25% of our global patents, developed some of our break-through technologies, and they helped make Silicon Valley the world’s leading tech center. Foreign-born workers comprise almost a quarter of all the U.S. science and engineering workforce and 47% of science and engineering workers who have PhDs.

I was startled to see 607 comments for Vivek’s post, most of them plain bunk and mostly with racist over and undertones. One even said that GM went down because it outsourced a project (estimates range between ~$50-300mn) to Wipro and it seems an Indian mafia forced GM to invest billions of dollars in India. This India invasion, even on some noted Silicon Valley firms such as Sun Microsystems, Microsoft and Adobe, have made them collapse. Even Lehmann Brothers bought bad financial software from Wirpo’s Spectramind. Weren’t the Big Three’s primary anathema the Japanese automakers? And GM is growing in India and China, much to the chagrin of Maruti!

But I know of one thing that before the 1990s liberalization, US was an academic destination for most Indians – especially engineers and doctors. But after mid 1990s, the exodus of Indians was an IT blitzkrieg that has exported mostly dumb (barring the few talented) fellows. Earning money and lavishly spending it is what most Indians have done going to US; so we did our bit in consumer spending. But there was hardly any intellectual gains from such a migration. They learnt how to be an American spender but not to be an American, who is vulnerable to various world views and get to participate in the over-230-year-old intellectual conversation called America.

I have little hope on the immigrants but big hope on the children of these immigrants, who would get a better education than they will do in India. Simply, nothing can beat MIT or Harvard? Indians boast of the first universities, Taxila and Nalanda. But see our current universities, including IITs/IIMs, Hardly an interdisciplinary research that is so much needed in a diverse country like India. No psychology departments in a country that was the well-spring of grand meditations on the human mind such as the upanisads. Sad, let’s first fix our system and see why hardly an undergrad (even from an IIT) wouldn’t want to stay back for a postgrad at an Indian univ?

Indian educational system is doomed for failure if it resists novelty in teaching and sticks to rigid pedagogy. Irreverence, not blind deference, must be properly promoted and students should not be teased for asking stupid questions.

To finish, Vivek’s lament on Silicon Valley suffering from Indians’ “let’s go back” syndrome has a flip side too. A post on Daily Finance (which linked Vivek’s article) invites Vivek to a small joint --serving Eastern fare-- frequented by Ivy League folks working in nearby “dozens of startups, ranging from optical networking companies and clean-chemistry outfits to software and media concerns.” This joint is at “technology’s ground zero” (Sunnyvale, California) where visitors speak a variety of world languages and seem to be pretty happy – going by the author’s eavesdropping of “detail CAD designs for semiconductors, new configurations of DNS software, plans to launch a new green-tech startup” etc. I think the author is pointing at Silicon Valley not primarily as a den of Indians, but a melting pot of many cultures/people that did their bit to shape what the Valley now is.

Some other things hitting my mind:

I recently read that going by the number of published research papers in the Nature magazine, India ranks 7th with just 14 articles way behind China’s 93 and Japan’s whopping 232. “While the University of Tokyo tops the list with 71 publications to its credit, and is followed by four more Japanese centres/universities, the Chinese Academy of Sciences comes fifth with 44 papers. Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, with just three papers, has produced the most in the case of India.”

I don’t wish to rant about Indian universities, but would like to point to the way our universities promote rigid modes of thinking that stifle creativity and misunderstand it in most cases as stupidity.

Talking about papers, am reminded of patents (I cannot recollect how few India has). But I read about the “greatest single act of corporate espionage in history”: stealing of tea seeds from China to India by a British botanist, Robert Fortune who helped the East India Company make a fortune out of the tea trade from India to England. Tea was a high-fashion British drink in those days and was in so much demand that it became as infamous a colonial commodity as cotton from the Caribbean. The Chinese tea was grown in Darjeeling and Assam tea became a flavor of its own and India soon became to largest tea producer. But China recently overtook India, reclaiming its crow, but India remains the world’s largest tea-drinking nation, with 70% of the produce consumed locally. We Indians have notorious reputation for some very unique things!

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