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Brain gain: a memo to the UK's innovation minister - let's embrace the science and tech talent that Trump repels

They say the Chinese character for “cliché” is an ideogram of a desperate writer beginning a story by saying that the Chinese character for crisis is a combination of the signs for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. (I think I’ve remembered that right.)

In any case, while we’re all trying to digest the enormity of Donald Trump’s election as president of the USA, let’s take a minute to think about the opportunities it offers for the UK. Specifically, since this is an innovation policy blog, in the field of innovation policy. (If this seems a bit too soon or too self-interested, think of it as a distraction from some of the more depressing possibilities, a kind of puzzle to while away the time while we wait to see how bad things will be.)

My starting point is three likely consequences of a Trump presidency: (i) a decline in liberalism and cosmopolitanism in the US; (ii) a conservative spending agenda, enabled by a Republican President and Congress and soon, a conservative Supreme Court; and (iii) the greater global instability likely to arise from American isolationism. If we’re being optimistic, these three pretty depressing possibilities suggest two courses of action for UK innovation policymakers.

Brain gain

For decades the brain drain has been mostly one-directional: across the Atlantic from east to west, and more generally from around the world to the US. It was a consequence of better funding opportunities and salaries in the US, to be sure, but also because America is generally a great place to work and live. (As someone who went to graduate school in the US and worked in Silicon Valley, I can confirm this.)        

I hope I’m wrong, but under Trump America might well become a worse place for researchers, innovators, and talented foreigners. A Republican Congress combined with a climate-skeptic president could result in significant falls in funding for science of all sorts, from green energy (“a Chinese con!”) to genetic research (“makes Jesus angry!”). A less tolerant America might be a less nice place for scientists, many of whom are pretty liberal, to live. And Trump’s strong anti-immigration mandate may make things harder for foreign scientists and innovators to relocate even if they want to.

This is a bad outcome for the world as well as for the US. After all, the republic of science knows no borders, and research funded in the US spills over the world as a whole. But if the US is going to start repelling scientists and innovators, we in the UK should do our best to attract them.

I’m not so jingoistic to assume that academics will automatically look at Trump’s America and think – “right, we must immediately go to Britain!”: the UK is a major research power, but not the only one outside the US. But we are not a bad place to go, and we can make ourselves more attractive.

The first thing we should do is stress our commitment to being a liberal, tolerant, inclusive society. To back this up, we should follow Dominic Cummings’ advice to tweak the highly skilled visa system to make sure the UK is a place where good junior researchers can move to easily, from wherever in the world they may be. (Cummings makes the point that polling suggests that while many people are worried about immigration, almost no-one is worried about immigration by post-doc researchers or skilled start-up founders.) This was good advice before Trump became president, but in a world where the home of the brave looks less attractive, the returns for the UK of this strategy increase.

Secondly, I would get tactical, quickly. If I were innovation minister Jo Johnson, I’d start talking to vice-chancellors and Royal Society fellows: I’d ask them if there are any great researchers in priority fields who would do credit to the UK research base and who could be lured to the UK from the US. I’d ask the same question to venture capitalists like Saul Klein or tech industry figures like Gerard Grech. And I’d start talking to bigger tech companies in Silicon Valley and New York about the benefits of London as a place to base more staff. This isn’t about buying talent (we’ll always lose at that game to Dubai or Singapore, and the winner usually doesn’t get their money’s worth) – rather, it is about identifying people who might be considering moving, or who have a pre-existing link to the UK, and giving them a nudge.

Finally, we should put our money where our mouth is. The government is about to announce its spending priorities in the Autumn Statement. Many people hope it will follow up on its commitments to invest in high priority fields of science and technology. Let’s use this money to back priority areas of science and innovation, and make this commitment part of our message to clever people disillusioned with America.

Defence technology

One of the more alarming possibilities for Europe of a Trump presidency is his apparent disregard for NATO. Pundits from Iain Duncan Smith to Jean-Claude Juncker have argued that the UK (and other European countries) will have to significantly increase its defence spending to have any chance of deterring Vladimir Putin from annexing the Baltic states or anything else he happens to fancy. Some people have mentioned an increase of military spending of the order of 1% of GDP – not far off £20 billion.

I’m not personally excited about having to spend a lot more on defence – it seems especially depressing to be considering this possibility on Armistice Day. But if we do end up spending this money, the UK should think about the innovation angle, especially in the context of an industrial strategy.

DARPA, the US military technological development agency, has a budget of about £2 billion per year, and has been famously responsible for all sorts of wonderful technology that ended up in civilian hands, from Siri to the self-driving car. While setting up a clone of DARPA doesn’t necessarily make sense (as we discussed here) given the vastly different sizes of the UK’s and the US’s defence procurement budget, a huge defence spending increase of the sort that some people are envisaging could provide significant funding for technological research useful both to defence and the wider economy – cybersecurity and UAVs are two areas that spring to mind, given the changing nature of warfare. This could be done through existing channels, like GCHQ or DSTL, or equally could involve setting up a new agency (the multiplicity of US DARPA-like agencies is seen as a source of strength, so long as the scale of each is sufficient).

But before we get too carried away at the thought of the next generation of wonder technologies being paid for by the Ministry of Defence, we need to give some thought for governance. After all, the US military industrial complex gave us GPS and the graphical user interface, but it also gave us PRISM and Palantir to surveil and observe us. From an innovation policy point of view, this shows the importance of scrutiny and good political oversight of technological innovation, especially when the innovators can plead national security as a defence for their actions.

In conclusion

If I were a UK innovation policymaker, I’d be as alarmed by Trump’s election as anyone else. But I’d also start thinking of how to respond to it. First of all, I’d consider the role of innovation in any putative increase in defence spending the UK might make – and how to keep it under control. But more importantly, I’d double down on making the UK a welcoming and tolerant place for talented, innovative people – partly out of enlightened self-interest, but also because, in a troubling world, it’s just the right thing to do.


Stian Westlake

Stian Westlake

Stian Westlake

Executive Director of Policy and Research

Stian led Nesta's Policy and Research team. His research interests included the measurement of innovation and its effects on productivity, the role of high-growth businesses in the eco…

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