Last night at a work function I had the chance to chat with someone who was UK born and educated, who had spent some large number of years in the US, and who had repatriated recently–returned to the UK in a very senior job. I was very interested when I and others asked “Why come back?” and the response could be summarized as “it’s over in the US, they’re on the decline and the UK is back on the rise.” Now I’m not sure I agree with that assessment completely–bearing in mind that as usual with me, this was a technical/science-y discussion (having nothing to do with global finance, for example). I do agree that in science America has slowed, leaving the door open for other countries (although I, like many others, probably would have noted China as the likely next source of technical moxy, not the UK!) But I do not see the investment occurring here (in England) that would be needed to take things to the next level. Perhaps it is because I am an early adopter in my timing of arriving in the UK. Maybe in five years the science climate here will be so bright that I have to wear shades. But I believe one thing is holding the UK back, and that is–simply put–money. There is just not the investment in science education that there is in the US. The educational climate in general favors old-fashioned solo pen-and-paper examinations, not hands-on labs, group projects and computers, and from what I read (although I have no children in the education system here) science education in schools has been dying a slow death. Something is VERY wrong when a University can’t manage to keep it’s physics department running! Physics is the foundation of all of science, if you lose that then what is left? This is probably part of the greater problem, that there is not a huge reserve of (in the US often state-derived) funds for building shiny new buildings and laboratories at the Universities. There is not the venture capital associated with spinning off potentially risky but potentially lucrative tech start-up companies. And there is definitely an attitude of “Britishness” in not seeming to want to compete with the Americans and be too aggressive in pursuing these things.
The reason these things are on my mind right now, is because I find myself frequently standing at the expat crossroads. I’ve been here more than two years, and thus can’t be accused of not giving it a fair shot. I recently had another one of those phone calls from the states where someone dangles an “opportunity” in front of my nose. On the one hand, a friend at work stated that I must not be really settled here if the possibility of a return to the land of my birth continues to tempt me. The fact that I listen to the details instead of shutting it down immediately is, I guess, somehow telling. That said, the idea of starting from scratch somewhere else is really unappealing right now. It’s taken more than two years to get to the position I’m in now, in terms of productivity, and with any move comes so much “start-up” in both the personal and professional sense that I simply can’t face it. Perhaps some time it will come to pass that an offer does look good enough to lure me into repatriation, or perhaps I’ll really settle in here and decide I cannot dream of moving. Who knows. But I feel as though it might be like this for most expats, an exercise in ever standing at the crossroads between paths forward in the country of residence and the country of origin.