The list of things that flow between Mexico and the U.S. is long: people, goods, money, resources. Conversations about the binational relationship, in turn, revolve around those exchanges, and the ways they shape trade, migration, and investment.
But what is harder to measure—and therefore often absent from these conversations—is the cross-border transfer of ideas and knowledge. Some of these transfers are formal: A Mexican student studies her PhD in the U.S.; a U.S. venture capital firm funds a Mexican start-up; Mexican and U.S. universities establish a binational research lab. Others are more informal, reflecting the interconnectedness of intertwined neighbors: Entrepreneurs from Mexico link up with family members in the U.S. to start a business; friends and partners in both countries share perspectives on common challenges; kids who’ve grown up on both sides of the border become adults with a complex understanding of two places.
The goal of this Spotlight, powered by Arizona State University, is to dive into this cross-border exchange of ideas and knowledge—to chronicle it, to trace its origins and trends, to reflect upon the ways it shapes us. To do so, we’ll share information on important collaborations between U.S. and Mexican institutions, present the latest research and statistics in this space, and interview key knowledge-transfer players from industry and the academy.
This Spotlight aligns with ASU’s mission. We’re interested in promoting the two-way transfer of knowledge between the U.S. and Mexico because we believe that our region’s biggest opportunities and challenges transcend borders. We’re committed to advancing research and discovery of public value, and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities we serve—and those communities are binational.
For me, knowledge transfers are also personal. Some of my experiences of exchange are reflected in the statistics of students and researchers flowing between countries: In fall of 2017, while completing my degree at ASU, I studied abroad in Mexico City at the Tecnológico de Monterrey. Later, I received a Fulbright-García Robles grant that took me to Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche. These days, I also experience ideas exchange that is less quantifiable: I sit in a home office across from my partner, a Mexican who works at a U.S. company that researches medicines that will benefit both countries. These are the realities of the knowledge transfers that characterize our region—countable and uncountable, both with profound impacts.
So, thanks for joining us. Let’s dive in.
Numbers to know: Students, PhDs, patents, and capital
- 15,229 and 6,340: the number of Mexican students who studied in the U.S. and U.S. students who studied in Mexico, respectively, during the 2018-2019 school year, according to the Institute for International Education’s Open Doors report. Mexico is ranked 10th among countries of origin for international students in the U.S. and is the 11th ranked destination for U.S. study abroad students.
- 14th: Mexico’s rank among countries of origin of temporary visa holders earning U.S. doctorates in 2019, with a total of 188 Mexican doctorate recipients that year, according to the National Science Foundation. Eighty-seven percent of these doctorates were in science and engineering fields. Further, 64.4 percent of doctorate earners intended to stay in the U.S. upon graduation.
- 47%: the percentage of the 8,702 patents issued by the Mexican Institute of Intellectual Property in 2019 that were for U.S. citizens, according to a recent report from the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, the Programa de Jóvenes del Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales, México Cómo Vamos, and Corazón Capital.
- $4 billion: The value of Mexican startup Kavak, reported Bloomberg, after raising $485 million in a Series D funding round led by U.S. venture capital firms D1 Capital Partners, Ribbit Capital, BOND and Founders Fund Management LLC.
Case in point: U.S. students at Mexican universities
In 2019, 10 percent of the graduating class of the Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior, in Baja California, was made up of U.S. students—“mostly Southern California residents who chose to complete their higher education in Mexico,” wrote the university’s president, Fernando León García, in The Hechinger Report.
While we know that significantly more Mexican students study in the U.S. than U.S. students study in Mexico, examples like this illustrate that exchange goes both ways—and, it seems, U.S. students are increasingly looking for international educational experiences that go beyond a short-term study abroad.
“With one foot in each country, our international students have the linguistic and cultural capacity to support the $1.7 billion in daily trade between the United States and Mexico,” writes León García. “Their presence in our classrooms sets the stage for the reality of a border-region economy where global companies like Honeywell, Gulfstream and Medtronics increasingly expect globally-oriented talent to match their own multinational ambitions.”
Along similar lines, Arizona State University recently launched Acceso ASU, a program that allows students to take classes at partner universities in Mexico, online, and then transfer those credits toward an ASU degree. The program (which will be implemented as a special kind of study abroad opportunity) is designed to reduce the total tuition cost of an ASU undergraduate degree for interested DREAMers and other bilingual students, while opening the door to a binational education.
Big questions: How big of a problem is brain drain for Mexico? How can it be addressed?
ASU’s Convergence Lab and the Tecnológico de Monterrey recently hosted an event on cross-border scientific and medical innovation, moderated by Rodolfo Rubio Etcharren of the Tec. Speakers considered how big of a problem brain drain is for Mexico—and how that problem might be addressed. Here are a few key takeaways:
- “It’s a big problem… I’d say [the solution lies] with more support for research,” said Dr. Ana Julia Narvaez, director of translational biology and biological science for Moderna. Narvaez left Mexico after completing her undergraduate degree at the Tec to study a doctorate at ASU, and now works for Moderna in Boston. “I really learned a lot from the European model…where there is a lot of mobility…where there really was a large flow of researchers that left their countries, but with plans to return, and with certain support that allowed them to return to their countries,” she said.
- “Those of us who migrate live with this question, it’s an existential question …home always calls to us,” said Dr. Rafael Fonseca, director of innovation and transformational relationships at The Mayo Clinic. Fonseca did a residency in internal medicine at the University of Miami after graduating with his medical degree from the Universidad Anáhuac in Mexico City, and he’s been in the U.S. ever since. “[Brain drain is] a problem solved by opportunities, it’s a problem solved by infrastructure that allows research to be carried out, it’s a problem solved by the funding behind all these projects…with a strong private sector,” he said.
- “It’s a political matter, it’s a matter of a country’s strategy,” said Dr. Guillermo Torre Amione, rector of TecSalud and vice president of research at the Tec. Torre Amione had a 25-year medical career in the U.S. before returning to Mexico. “We live in a country today in Mexico that has basic needs. If those basic needs aren’t fulfilled, it’s complicated to strive for more,” he said.
Watch the full conversation here.