Creating a talent hub on science and technology

Kim Won-joon
The author is the head of Kaist Graduate School of Innovation and Technology Management.

Toronto has become a mecca for tech. Apple, Amazon and Google have opened research centers there, and in February, Microsoft became the latest multinational to set up a research base and office in central Toronto. Leading the metaverse economy, Meta, formerly Facebook, has established an engineering hub there. The city’s population increased by more than 10 percent over the last decade. Half of its citizens were not born in Canada. Toronto is emerging as a center of brain power to rival Silicon Valley.

Toronto attracts talent from around the globe in many ways. Geoffrey Hinton, a University of Toronto professor dubbed the father of artificial intelligence studies, is based in the city. The University of Toronto has become the center of AI research thanks to Hinton. Tech multinationals are lining up to collaborate with the university. The Canadian government helps attract IT talent. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally pitches the Global Talent Stream program, which fast-tracks visas within two weeks for hires by Canadian companies in the high-tech sector. Software engineers are eligible to become permanent residents within a year.

The power rivalry between the United States and China added to the global talent flow into Toronto. American universities, companies and the whole high-tech ecosystem have pulled in elite students from China, India and elsewhere. The U.S. leveraged its global student talent pool to maintain global leadership in science and tech. Foreign students in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) category surged until 2017, making up nearly half, or 490,000, of 1 million foreign students in America. Chinese nationals top the list. Chinese talent, ironically enough, is bolstering American economic and science-and-tech competitiveness.

This lesson has not been lost on Beijing. The Thousand Talents Plan is an initiative led by China to attract leading international experts in scientific research, innovation and entrepreneurship. The program mostly targeted professors in the U.S., raising suspicions of Beijing’s intention to gain access to new technologies from America. The Donald Trump administration restricted acceptance of Chinese students from 2017 as part of a campaign to contain China’s rise in high-tech.
 
Trump’s anti-immigration policy cut visas for Chinese students, sending science-and-tech talent to other countries. American companies complained about the loss of Chinese workers. Universities struggled with a lack of brain power for research. The tech elite returned to China or headed to Canada or Singapore.
 
Canada benefited the most from Trump’s immigration policy.
 

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According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), American universities and companies lost over 20,000 top-notch talents to Canada from 2017 to 2020. The number of high-tech talents based in the U.S. applying for permanent residency in Canada doubled during this period. They were mostly Chinese and other Asians. The Biden administration hurriedly abolished or amended the rigid immigration policies under Trump, but the harm was already done.
 
In a strategic battle with China, the U.S. overlooked the important fact that talent is the key to its science and tech competitiveness. America now has to fear an exodus of talent. Thinning human resources have become a worry amidst U.S. efforts to enhance economic security — and a challenge to the government and corporate research and development (R&D).
 
The Soviet Union lost its science and tech leadership due to a void of talent. The Soviets were famous for favoring scientific talent. It kept them in the country when they rebelled against the regime. But after the Soviet collapse in 1991 and Russian moratorium on foreign debt in 1998, the brains behind basic science research left for America and Europe, contributing to their science and tech competitiveness. France is also losing competitiveness through a loss of talent.
 
The CSIS report released last October, “Winning the Tech Talent Competition,” shows America has come to realize the significance of brain power in its tech war with China. The report pointed out that a breakthrough to gain the upper hand in tech supremacy could not be achieved if the science and tech talent habitat is not filled with top-caliber scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs regardless of massive investments in public R&D and industry support policies.
 
Brains are the power behind the science and tech ecosystem. Innovations and new markets are bred from a talent pool. A tech hub is led by tech talent. Money follows human power. America has fought to defend its tech leadership and it must revive its appeal as a talent hub to achieve its goal.
 
The U.S. is going all-out to win over talent. It has established the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with India, Australia and Japan to help establish a joint front on human resources. In the inaugural meeting of the Quad, U.S. President Joe Biden announced the launch of a fellowship program to sponsor exceptional students from the three countries if they pursue post-graduate degrees in the STEM category in America.
 
The U.S. Congress added the E-4 (Technological Guidance) visa category for up to 15,000 South Korean nationals each year to attract Korean talent in IT, engineering, mathematics, physics and medical science.
 
The incoming government of South Korea must pay heed to the move. It must overcome its geographical and geopolitical limitations and its complicated relations with America, China, North Korea and Japan, through irreplaceable high-tech industries and science. The country must become a hub in technology geopolitics. Human power is the only way to do that.
 
Korea can make most of a thinning talent pool in the U.S. science and tech habitat and the global supply chain crisis. The country could be as attractive as Canada as a talent hub, or more so. Compared to Canada, Korea has close proximity to China and maintains an alliance in values and innovation with America.
 
If Koreans can replace the Chinese in the manpower vacuum in America, they can internalize high-tech and science capabilities they build in America. Korea must enhance science and tech cooperation with the U.S. and proactively pursue human exchanges in the field. China’s Thousand Talent Program has irked the U.S., but Korea’s model can groom next-generation manpower in science and tech in a reciprocal manner through cooperation in the field. The U.S. also would support a country that can replace the Chinese in talent.
 
Korea would not be unilaterally supplying talents to America. It must establish a system for global partnership in science and tech. Instead of regarding the issue as a talent contest, it must be addressed as a promotion of a benign cycle in human flows. Universities and companies in Korea and America must cooperate as global partners. The cooperation would pave a new path for future industries to overcome its limited market size.
 
A talent hub in the digital age will be different from in the past. Multinationals would first join to seek out for talent regardless of the sector. Start-ups can be born each day. In a talent hub, accumulated knowledge does not matter much. For creativity, integration of intelligence is more important. Research-centered universities are central in science and tech R&D.
 
Korea must immediately set a strategy for being part of the human talent chain. Needless to say, economic security hinges on creating a talent hub on science and technology.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.