An exodus of talent in both countries is driven by researchers seeking a free flow of ideas that can revive breakthroughs in thought.
By the Monitor’s Editorial Board
January 23, 2023
Big and new ideas in scientific research don’t always originate in well-equipped labs or with more money. Sometimes the greatest resource is freedom. To see why, look at the exodus of people – especially creative innovators and entrepreneurs – from Russia and China over the past year.
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Russia’s exodus of talent began with Western economic sanctions imposed after the Ukraine invasion, new restrictions on the internet, and later a harsh military draft of young men. Tens of thousands of high-tech workers fled to Israel, Georgia, or Kazakhstan, where they could find opportunities and free expression in safe havens. Those countries welcomed them as potential founts of innovation.
The exodus from China began with a crackdown on its biggest tech companies, especially their founders, as well as a draconian lockdown of cities against COVID-19. Many of the country’s most creative people moved to the United States, Singapore, and Japan to avoid China’s increasing techno-authoritarianism, or a top-down approach to research.
“Now that they have lived free of fear in other countries, they are reluctant to put themselves and their businesses under the thumb of the Chinese Communist Party again,” wrote The New York Times. One founder of a crypto banking startup cited the need to have a say in how government makes rules. “There are many other places [than China] where you can do things,” said Aginny Wang, a co-founder of Flashwire who moved from China to Singapore.
These two waves of talent emigration, both of which may set back each country’s science and technology, are timely reminders about the most basic element for breakthroughs in scientific thought: freedom. They come as yet another study suggests global science has been in a slump in producing “disruptive” discoveries, such as lasers, airplanes, and transistors.
The study, conducted at the University of Minnesota and the University of Arizona, looked at 45 million papers and 3.9 million U.S. patents from 1945 to 2010 to see which research pointed to groundbreaking disruptions in fields from physics to social science. This “disruption index” showed a decline in basic discoveries after World War II and then a leveling since the 1990s. Also noted was an increase in the use of words like “improve” and “enhance” over language such as “make” and “produce.”
As in China and Russia today, many researchers may feel less free to pursue novel and radical ideas. In the West, scholars are publishing research more than ever but in increasingly narrower silos of knowledge. Many spend half their time applying for government grants, which are often given out based on demands for immediate, risk-free results.
“Rather than minting revolutionary ways of thinking, science and technology are increasingly polishing the same conceptual pennies,” writes science commentator Anjana Ahuja in The Financial Times.
The study’s authors say scientific workers can find greater freedom in undirected research and more sabbaticals. Long-shot research begins with short-term liberties to think, explore, make mistakes, and share ideas freely. The best research centers are small in number with high trust and no compulsion for conformity. Or just the opposite of what authoritarian leaders prefer. More freedom may be the greatest disruptor in the world of science seeking disruptive ideas.
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