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The Great Brain Race

WASHINGTON, DC – For decades, research universities in the United States have been universally acknowledged as the world’s leaders in science and engineering, unsurpassed since World War II in the sheer volume and excellence of the scholarship and innovation that they generate. But there are growing signs that the rest of the world is gaining ground fast – building new universities, improving existing ones, competing hard for the best students, and recruiting US-trained PhDs to return home to work in university and industry labs. Is the international scholarly pecking order about to be overturned?

There is no question that the academic enterprise has become increasingly global, particularly in the sciences. Nearly three million students now study outside their home countries – a 57% increase in the last decade. Foreign students now dominate many US doctoral programs, accounting for 64% of PhDs in computer science, for example. Tsinghua and Peking universities together recently surpassed Berkeley as the top sources of students who go on to earn American PhDs.

Faculty are on the move, too. Half of the world’s top physicists no longer work in their native countries. And major institutions such as New York University and the University of Nottingham are creating branch campuses in the Middle East and Asia. There are now 162 satellite campuses worldwide, an increase of 43% in just the past three years.

At the same time, growing numbers of traditional source countries for students, from South Korea to Saudi Arabia, are trying to improve both the quantity and quality of their own degrees, engaging in a fierce – and expensive – race to recruit students and create world-class research universities of their own.