STEM's next step: secure employment for innovators

Strict U.S. immigration policy ensures that America educates the world's best and brightest -- then lets them return home to innovate elsewhere, said NextFab Studio's Evan Malone at TEDxPhilly.
Written by Andrew Nusca on

PHILADELPHIA -- Is America content with merely educating the world's innovators?

There is little doubt that there exists renewed interest in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- education. But what about after those students graduate?

Where will they work? And will the federal government let them do so?

Speaking at the TEDxPhilly conference yesterday at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center, engineer Evan Malone said the U.S. is failing to close enough "feedback loops" to prevent many of its highly educated graduates from seeking work overseas.

The problem? Strict immigration policy in recent decades means university students from all over the world can come to America to study on a student visa -- then are forced to return home because they can't secure a work visa to stay.

"We've actually broken some of those feedback loops," Malone said. "Those students that used to come here, study and stay are now leaving."

Malone, founder of design-engineering-fabrication service center NextFab Studio, specializes in 3D printing of complete electromechanical devices, from printed batteries and transistors to children's toys and even human tissue.

Malone spoke of a Cornell University doctoral classmate named Viktor Zykov, who built "resilient machines" that can self-model -- that is, if a leg breaks off, the machine can change its walking form to compensate for the damage. (In a Terminator-like twist, he also built self-replicating robots.)

Zykov came to the U.S. because he saw opportunity, Malone said.

"We are the innovators," Malone said. "It's that kind of energy and exposure to those opportunities early in life that really helped us be a creative society. Our higher education system had that reputation -- it's a place where innovation takes place."

But in the midst of his research, Zykov was sent packing back to his native Russia. Why? Because the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had just occurred, and the U.S. tightened its immigration policy for security reasons.

"Our argument [to have him return]: if the U.S. didn't want him, Iran or North Korea would," Malone said.

The research team was eventually able to get Zykov cleared to return to the U.S., but the experience left a bad taste in Malone's mouth with regard to the value of innovation in America.

It also stood in direct contrast to innovation as a fundamental building block of the United States, where "highly motivated people" had to "forge their way" in the face of tremendous difficulty, Malone said.

In the U.S., a combination of tolerance, quality education and economic opportunity led to a diverse, motivated, educated population that developed innovation-based businesses and jobs.

"We're siphoning off knowledge of people from other countries," Malone said. "We become the sink for all that knowledge out there."

For years, the U.S. benefitted from oppression overseas, Malone said. In the 20th century, the first great wave was after the Second World War, followed by successive waves of Asians from the 1950s to 1980s and Indians in the 1990s.

But then outsourcing began "leaking out" that knowledge back overseas, to countries as diverse as India, China and Ireland.

"It's cost-effective for our businesses, but it's creating economic opportunities off-shore and reducing economic opportunities on-shore," he said. "We've lost all those skills, to a large extent. All that innovation capacity has been lost [overseas]."

Outsourcing began as a way to complete back-office administrative tasks on the cheap, but it has since scaled to creative and innovative aspects of the business. Now, pharmaceutical companies outsource research and development to India, he said.

"Now, the product development -- the ideas making economic opportunity -- are happening in other countries," he said.

Since 2001, an economic downturn and strict immigration policy has turned away innovators from coming to America -- and over time, degrading the view that the U.S. is a hub for innovation.

"They feel like the economic best times of the United States are in the past," he said. "If they're going to start a business anywhere, it's not going to be in the United States. It's going to be in their home country."

The numbers demonstrate the shift. China now has more researchers than the U.S. or the European Union.

"Although we want more students to go into the STEM fields, we don't really have the employment for them," he said. "That's a real problem."

So what is the solution? Malone proposed the following:

  • Ask the federal government to restore broken feedback loops.
  • Reform immigration policy to be more friendly to best and brightest. "People take risks to get here, they should be welcomed," he said.
  • Have a clear, stable policy so that risky R&D ventures know that the rug won't be pulled out from under projects halfway through them.
  • Offer incentives for R&D, such as tax deductions.
  • Support grand challenges, such as the DARPA Grand Challenge, which inspire a huge pile-on effect from outside companies.
  • "Buy drinks. Be a welcoming society. Foster innovation. Talk about how wonderful things can be in the United States. Be an ambassador. A lot of people tend to put it down."
  • Support project-based education, such as theX-Prize, Innocentive or KickStarter.
  • Support facilities for research, such as TechShop and NextFab.
  • Support "hackerspaces" to foster innovation as a social activity. "I love the idea that this could be the recreation of the future, as opposed to being a couch potato," he said.

Ultimately, it boils down to a single goal: don't drop the ball, America.

"There isn't any magic that keeps us an innovating culture," Malone said. "It's up to us."

More from TEDxPhilly on SmartPlanet:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com


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