Why Are More of France's Best and Brightest Coming Here?

There's a huge new enigma in the global competition for elite scientific talent.

France leads the United States in health care rankings (though with some caveats about the statistics). French life expectancy at birth is 2.5 years longer than ours. The magazine International Living gives that nation the top score in its 2010 Quality of Life Index. Meanwhile our own reputation for decline is such that even illegal immigrants are starting to avoid us.

So why does a recent French official document sound the alarm over emigration of outstanding researchers to the United States? As the New York Times reports:

"Those who leave France are the best, the most prolific and the best integrated on an international scale," said the report, which surveyed about a hundred French researchers and professors who studied in France's top universities and elite schools like the École Normale Supérieure and the École Polytechnique.

Many of France's best biologists and economists can now be found in the United States. According to a study in 2007 by the École des Mines that looked at the 100 best economists in the world, according to the amount of their work published from 1990 and 2000, four of the six top French researchers in economics had left France for the United States.

What's most puzzling is that no other nation has been as conspicuously and consistently critical of the United States over the last half century as France. 

There's no single reason. The Times suggests that American academic culture is perceived as freer and more vigorous, but I can think of three further non-exclusive explanations:

First, at least for the economists, America's troubles are an opportunity; Americans are more open to solutions from abroad than they would have been at the height of the bubble,

Second, the French have a strong individualist, anti-conformist streak -- remember Charles de Gaulle's famous remark about the difficulty of governing a people with hundreds of kinds of cheeses? Even if only ten percent don't buy the idea of declining America, that's a large number.

Third, in living memory France experienced one of the greatest turnarounds in her history. After the Second World War, the exhausted nation embarked on what it calls in hindsight les trente glorieuses. So why shouldn't educated French people take a long view of others' prospects?

Ironically, the very military-industrial complex that so many French intellectuals ignore, was based, as I've argued earlier, on their nation's brilliant ideas like interchangeable parts, that they didn't implement themselves, just as France's high-speed trains are derived from Depression-era U.S. research and development.

Whatever the reason, for this welcome note of confidence: Merci!

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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