Azara Blog: Science missing out on talent

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Date published: 2005/07/30

Stephen Pincock, in the Financial Times (subscription service) weekend magazine, says about a conversation with a well-conversed taxi driver in Boston:

And so the conversation went on, as we threaded our way through Boston towards the train station. I was beginning to wonder whether the selection criteria for taxi drivers in Cambridge were as rigorous as those for MIT and Harvard when the driver explained that in fact he was a research pharmacist who had once worked for a big pharmaceutical company.

"But my diploma is not from the US, so they don”t recognise it here," he said, which is why he was driving cabs. He didn”t seem exactly bitter about this state of affairs, but there was a hint of anger in his voice. "You know," he said, "there is no division between scientists, but here they make a distinction."

His tale obviously isn't unique - around the world, professionals from developing countries end up doing other kinds of work. But as I jumped out of his cab into the heat of the Massachusetts summer, it made me think about what science loses when it shuts people out.

These days, young scientists are finding it more difficult to get into countries such as the US and the UK. In May, the US National Academies of Science reported that science was being harmed by a sense among international students that the US was "a less welcoming place than other places". In July, UK universities urged the government to scrap plans that would prevent international students from appealing if their visa applications were rejected.

Ultimately, science is an international business and the best thing for scientific research is to allow movement to be as free as safely possible. To do otherwise might foster interesting cab rides, but creates a big downside.

Well US universities do recognise non-US degrees, but, no doubt in common with the rest of the developed world, they probably don't recognise degrees from some unknown educational institutions, or at least recognise them enough to believe they are worth very much. It is hard to get a (research) job in science without a doctorate, and once you have a doctorate what counts most is your scientific publication list. So Pincock is exaggerating this particular problem. Of course there are many people around the world who are not in jobs appropriate to their skills, and not just in science. Some are way over-promoted (e.g. Bush), some do not get given a proper chance. The world has probably even lost an Einstein or two in the developing world due to complete lack of opportunity, or to lack of proper nutrition or health care. Science per se is not "shutting people out", it is just the way the world as a whole works.

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