08 May 2005

Opportunity Knocks, but it can't come in...

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day, about two things that are integrally linked to our future. The first was her interest in an idea whose time has nearly come: namely, using nanotechnology to produce a photovoltaic material that can be spread like paint. Imagine a nano-solar cell that could be incorporated into the paint on your house or the hood of your car. The second was the brain drain.

Despite having read the Economist's excellent expose on nanotechnology a few months ago, I don't really understand how it works. But apparently there are enough brilliant scientists who do, and they are working on this at such stalwart academic institutions as UC Berkeley, Penn, and RIT. What I do understand about nanotechnology in this context is that even at face value it could revolutionize solar power generation in the next decade. Clearly something like this could transform solar from Mom-and-Pop operation to the Microsoft of the energy sector. But will it come to fruition? There are only two things holding advances like this up. One is obvious: investment (time + money); the other is the brain drain to which I alluded above.

Are we making it increasingly difficult to develop such technology in this country by restricting foreign workers? Many, some say tens of thousands, left the high-tech sector in the wake of further visa restrictions and returned to their homes in India, Pakistan, and China. Yet there is still talk of a technology worker shortage and companies like Microsoft and Intel are outsourcing to other countries around the world. And according to reports coming from the big venture capital meeting in New York last week, China is the next Silicon Valley.

I understand outsourcing and I'm all for globalization, as long as it is achieved in a socially responsible manner; a decidedly liberal view. But the conservative in me begins to wonder at the conservatives running this country when we continue to ignore the signs that a potential hope for our economic future is at hand. Opportunity is knocking, but it can't come in.

While in Indonesia earlier this year, I heard the story of the granddaughter of an acquaintance; a very sharp young woman with an interest in economics and math. She wants desperately to study in the States, but the visa restrictions are so onerous that she may not be able to come here. Why? Because she comes from a predominantly Muslim country. Hello London School of Economics, are you ready for her?

And what about those we do let in, the scientists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and computer whizzes who do make it through the hoops? Do we give them an opportunity to stay? Are we making it easier rather than harder for new ideas from the new new economy to take root in this country and bolster our future economy? Or are we waiting for places like India, Pakistan, and China to eat our lunch? Because they will, and they'll take dinner, too; and maybe even breakfast the next day.

Rather than investing in trying to recover some unproven, undetermined billion barrels of oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) -- estimates range wildly from Senator Frank Murkowski's 16 billion to 10.4 (USGS)and 1 billion (Wilderness Society) -- shouldn't we be pushing for a real energy agenda built on alternative technologies? Are we risking our economic future by ignoring investments in America's technological capabilities and by forcing an emotional issue to take center stage? Will we wake up before it's too late?

(Forgive me, I am of the opinion that developing ANWR can be done in an ecologically responsible manner, we have the technological know-how; I'm just not convinced it's worth an investment that could be saved for more long-term solutions.)

I'm afraid it already is too late. Everyday we lose the best minds of our country, and those who come to our soils to attend our top schools or help fuel our economy by working for U.S. companies. It's a failure of imagination. It doesn't take a nano-polymer chemist to envision the potential financial return of an investment in alternative technologies and a sustainable economy. Or does it? Anyway my friend doesn't think so; and I hope she takes the creative leap while others hold on to business as usual. Of course, it probably means she'll be moving to Asia one of these days, but more power to her.

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