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Are Foreign Scientists Good for the US Scientific Workforce?

AIBS Washington Watch, October 2004

Andrew C. Lin

Many in the scientific community have expressed concerns that post-9/11 delays in visa processing are deterring foreign students and scientists from studying or working in the United States (see the April 2004 Washington Watch column, BioScience 54: 296). Yet few have discussed the larger question: Just what is—or should be—the role of foreign scholars in US science?

The National Academy of Sciences seeks to answer that question in a study currently entitled "Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States," scheduled for release in April 2005. As the committee in charge of the study is finding, the issue affects more than the international exchange of ideas; it influences the dynamics of the US domestic scientific workforce as well.

As were the physicists who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and became crucial to the Manhattan Project, foreign- born scientists today are vital components of the US scientific workforce. "The sum total of their intellectual contributions is enormous," says David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. Federal bodies such as the National Science Board (NSB) also value the top-notch talent of foreign scientists, because this "brain gain" has helped ensure the United States’ postwar dominance in science and is crucial to maintaining it.

The NSB cautions, however, that reliance on foreign students and scientists in universities and the workforce is not sustainable, given that competition from Asia and Europe for scientific talent is swiftly growing. For example, Diana Hicks, chair of the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, notes that China increased the annual number of science and engineering PhDs it awarded 60-fold from 1986 to 2001, though it still awards far fewer of those PhDs than the United States does. If this trend continues, eventually more talented science students in China may stay there for graduate school rather than come to the United States.

Moreover, "relying on foreign workers is kind of the easy way out. It has caused us to do less to attract Americans to science," warns Michael Finn, a research economist at Oak Ridge Associated Universities. He explains that over the past decade the growing demand for scientists could have boosted salaries in the United States and signaled to students that "this is a hot field, there are opportunities here." Instead, the stepped-up immigration of foreign scientists kept salaries from rising and allowed the scientific establishment to grow "without growing the number of US scientists."

Still, few want to increase the proportion of US-born scientists by simply cutting off the flow of foreign scientists. Beyond contributing to the brain gain, foreign students help build bridges for collaboration between their countries’ scientific communities and that of the United States. Such links can be especially important for US scientists who want to study scientific questions outside the United States. For example, Arturo Gómez-Pompa, a professor of botany at the University of California in Riverside, reports that a former student from Mexico is now at the University of Yucatán, where he "has been a great supporter and contributor" to Gómez-Pompa’s research on ecosystems and conservation in the Yucatán.

Immigrant scientists also often bring greater diversity in research priorities to US science. Many turn their attention to problems relevant to their home countries, problems that might otherwise go unstudied in the United States. Gómez-Pompa, for example, brought to the United States his interest and expertise in tropical forests in his native Mexico. More generally, cultural exchange in research institutions fosters the spread of US values abroad. US colleges and universities are "the most effective transmitters of democratic values around the globe," says Kathie Bailey Mathae, of the American Association of Universities.

In light of these benefits, few in the US scientific community advocate restricting the immigration of foreign scientists. Rather, the NSB recommends improving education to recruit more US students to science and engineering careers and increasing graduate student stipends to make the training years less painful. Finn prefers a more demand-oriented approach, noting that US students would be more attracted to science if they had a better chance of a high-paying, stable job after their long, arduous training. "If the outcome is made more attractive, we won’t need to offer subsidies" such as higher graduate student stipends, he says.

Richard Freeman, an economist at the National Bureau of Economic Research, agrees. In addition to attracting the best and brightest foreign scientists, he wrote in an editorial in Science’s Next Wave, "we must also deliver ample economic rewards and fulfilling careers to our own best and brightest if we are to maintain" the United States’ leadership in science.

Andrew C. Lin (e-mail: is a Gates Scholar studying neuroscience at the University of Cambridge and a former member of the AIBS Office of Public Policy.

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