Academics should not feel guilty for maximizing their potential by leaving their homeland

Rafael Irizarry

In a New York Times op-ed titled Migration Hurts the Homeland, Paul Collier tells us that

What’s good for migrants from poor places is not always good for the countries they’re leaving behind.

He makes the argument that those that favor open immigration don’t realize that they are actually hurting “the poor” more than they are helping. This post is not about the issue of whether migration is bad for the homeland (I know of others that make the opposite claim) but rather about the opinions I have formed by leaving my homeland to become an academic in a US research university.

Let me start by pointing out that an outstanding 470 Nobel prizes have been handed out to residents of the US or the UK. About 25% of these are to immigrants. These Nobel laureates include academics born in Egypt, Venezuela, and Mexico. In contrast, only one of the 20 prizes handed to Italy was to an immigrant (none in the last 50 years). I view my university as international, not american.

Throughout my career I have encountered several foreign graduate students/postdocs that ponder passing on academic jobs in the US to go back and help the homeland. I was one of them and I admire the commitment of those who decide to go back. However, I think it’s important to point out that the accomplishments of those that take jobs in American research universities are in large part due to the unique support that these universities provide. This is particularly true in the sciences were research success depends on low teaching loads, lab infrastructure, high-performance computers, administrative support for grant submission, and talented collaborators.

The latter is by far the most important for applied statisticians like myself who depend on subject matter experts that provide quantitative challenges. Having a critical mass of such innovators is key. Although I will never know for sure, I am quite certain that most of what I have accomplished would not have happened had I returned home.

It is also important to point out that my homeland benefits from what I have learned during 15 years working in top research universities. I am always looking for an excuse to visit my friends and family and I also enjoy giving back to my alma mater. This has greatly increased my interactions through workshops, academic talks, participation in advisory boards, and many other informal exchanges.

So, if you are an up-and-coming academic deciding if you should go back or not, do not let guilt factor into the decision. Humanity benefits from you  maximizing your potential. Your homeland will benefit in indirect ways as well.

ps - Do people from Idaho feel guilty for leaving their brain-drained state?