TCS Daily


Keeping the Edge

By Clint Parks - May 17, 2006 12:00 AM

As the Congress debates the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, illegal immigration often shapes public debate. But there is another face in the debate about immigration -- the legal immigration of scientists.

According to a 2003 National Science Board (NSB) report, "It is beyond dispute that society is -- and will become even more -- dependent on science and technology," and therefore must "depend on a cadre of individuals with a high level of scientific training and education."

The nation's scientific prowess relies on foreign minds. For years, the U.S. has trained and employed many of the world's scientists. Signs are that this is changing and critics, including President Bush, believe this change endangers America's role as a world leader. A simple and quick solution -- while we fix our faltering pre-college infrastructure -- is to increase our foreign science presence. If the Immigration Reform Act passes, the means to bring and keep foreign scientists and engineers in the U.S. -- the H-1B visa -- would increase (from its 65,000 limit to 115,000) and eliminate caps for advanced-degree holders. Will it be enough?

The Importance of Non-Citizen Scientists

Scientists from abroad, especially China, South Korea, and India, have provided U.S. science with a steady talent pool for years. Substantial increases in the numbers of foreign-born science and engineering workers are noted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2006. In 1999, non-citizens comprised 15 percent of the college educated science and engineering workers in the U.S. Their share jumped to 22.5 percent in 2003. Furthermore, the proportion of foreign scientists and engineers progressively increases incrementally with each greater degree level.

In 2003 alone, says Indicators, students on temporary visas earned 32 percent of the science and engineering doctorates in the U.S. The proportion of foreign science and engineering graduate students jumped from 19 percent to 27 percent of graduate science and engineering students between 1983 and 2003. Foreign students are represented in still greater numbers in some disciplines, notes the NSF report. In computer science, mathematics, and agricultural sciences, non-citizens account for about 43 percent of U.S. doctorates and they compose 55 percent of our engineering Ph.D.s in 2003.

Trouble Ahead?

The U.S. remains the favorite destination for internationally mobile students (40 percent in 2004, says Indicators), but their numbers here have recently declined. Science and engineering graduate students with temporary visas slumped 5 percent in 2002 and another 8 percent in 2003. Indicators notes the rise of engineering and science Ph.D.s awarded in China, South Korea, and Japan. And for those who come, fewer choose to stay. The number of foreign students planning to stay in the U.S. decreased in 2002 and 2003 after increasing from 1996 to 2001, says the NSF report.

While the U.S. remains the leader in patent citations, signs are that the rest of the world is catching up. Indicators reveals China spent nearly $85 billion in 2003 for research and development -- a 600 percent increase since 1991 -- ranking them third in the world.

And from 1998 to 2003, articles in science and technology journals from the European Union surpassed the number of U.S. articles, says Indicators. During the same period, science articles from China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have more than quintupled.

A Cautionary Tale

"We continue to be a very, very attractive place technically trained people to work," says John Margburger, Science Advisor to the President and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). And Marburger is unconvinced the U.S. is doomed to lose its top position in science and innovation. He should know; one of OSTP's priorities is increasing the number of foreign scientists. He says the recent decline of foreign applications to science graduate programs in the U.S. is reversing. Interviews and anecdotal information indicate the U.S. is still a favored destination for internationally mobile scientists, he says.

China, Marburger mentions, produces scientists rapidly. However, "probably faster than they can absorb them." Traditionally, the U.S. has taken more than its share of such scientists. According to Marburger, the U.S. contains about a third of the world's scientists and only about a twentieth of the world's population.

But Marburger acknowledges that increasing competition for science talent from developing and developed countries should cause us to take notice. "They're waking up to what we've been doing since before World War II," he says. Despite the increased pressure from new suitors, Marburger is confident the supply of foreign scientists is still enough to fill America's needs.

Maintaining Our Edge

If more H-1B visas are granted will it bring more foreign scientists? There is some debate about that. It didn't help when the limit was raised to 195,000 (and another 20,000 for advanced-degree holders) between 2001 and 2003. During the 2003 academic year there was a 27 percent drop in State Department-issued student visas, says Josef Joffe in a Washington Post article called "Locking Out the Brainpower?" But today's healthier economy might make the difference. A General Accounting Office report noted that "H-1B visas for the IT industry dropped by 25 percent from 2000 to 2002 and the overall use of the H-1B program has declined consistent with the country's general economic downturn."

Marburger, however, disputes the claim that increasing the number of H-1B visas alone will not bring more students. "That's not what the industry people tell us," he says. "It doesn't make sense for us to limit the numbers of people coming in when we've got these jobs that need to be done." Beyond raising the cap on H-1B visas, he also believes the current immigration policy needs reworking. Applicants should not be expected to return to their native countries after receiving their degrees. "We ought to be doing just the opposite," Marburger says.

Similarly, a report by the National Academies advocates streamlining the H-1B delivery process, including an automatic yearlong extension to international students who get U.S. doctorates in science and engineering to allow them time to seek employment here. Further, the National Academies suggests preferential immigration for those with doctorates in science and engineering.

The signs are there. The rest of the world is beginning to catch up with the United States in science and technology. Raising the number of H-1B visas is necessary, but alone it is not enough to attract foreign scientists and engineers to study and work here. The difficulties -- real or imagined -- facing foreign students after the terrorist attacks of 2001 cannot be ignored. But the US will likely remain a haven for foreign scientists. "Highly trained and talented people, scientists, graduate students," says Marburger, "come to the U.S. because we have the best laboratories, the best equipment, and the best opportunities for advancement and entrepreneurial achievement in the world, by far."

Clinton Parks writes for publications of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science).

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9 Comments

Doctorates
"..foreign science and engineering graduate students jumped from 19 percent to 27 percent.. ..In computer science, mathematics, and agricultural sciences, non-citizens account for about 43 percent of U.S. doctorates and they compose 55 percent of our engineering Ph.D.s in 2003."

Why do we care about doctorates? Practically everyone I work with has a bachelors... a few have masters, but it doesn't help them. Doctorates are for professors and people who want to work in government labs. The real work is done by people who take off the training wheels and get to it.

Personal anecdote...
About 26 years ago, my father emmigrated over here from India to complete a graduate degree in Economics from the University of Iowa. After being awarded his doctorate he decided to stay here and become a citizen. Nearly 15 years later my mother finished earning a doctorate in Education from Texas A&M. I myself have just recently finished a doctorate in Electrical Engineering from UCLA. My brother is in the process of completing his MBA from Irvine (after also getting a BS in EE from UCLA also). My sister is attending UC Berkeley right now studying Engineering Physics. She also plans to at least pursue a graduate degree and maybe a doctorate also.

Our immigration to the US has resulted in not just one single doctorate being kept here but over the years at least three and quite possibly two other graduate degree holders. The enrichment to the US has grown from the initial investment. If the US at the time did not have an accelerated program for citizenship for higher education degree holders in economics, the multiple degrees that my family has earned over the years would not have stayed here in the US, but might have been used by another country.

Even though both my mother and father are professors, I myself am not. I happen to work for an aerospace corporation in an R&D field developing the latest tactical laser weaponry and accompanying weapon systems. My brother works as a senior manager for a small company here in the US. Our family involvement and contribution to the US is far above just a government lab or a simple professorship.
I hope that the US tends to keep a favorable outlook for higher education immigrants and takes a decidely strong approach to keeping well trained personnel as myself within the US (by granting citizenship). It should help tremendously with keeping the country's edge over it's competitors.


Mario.

H1-B Unemployment
The major problem with the author's position is his detachment from reality. We do not have a dearth of Computer Science grads in this country, but a surplus. The same is true of most branches of Engineering.

Secondly, if there were a problem with low numbers, these are fields dominated by white men, the very combination that is truly hated in academia. Academia is quite hostile to boys in K-12, and the universities. Since math and science is dominated by men (some women are interested, but women tend to wired differently and are generally not interested) and men are hated outside the Physics, Chemistry, Math and Engineering departments, they tend to retreat there, get a BS and then get out while they still have half a brain. Third world imports are viewed as "good" because they were "oppressed" by the colonial powers and don't have white skins and have strange sounding names to mind raised in western civilization.

Frankly, if you want the US to keeps its edge you will have to end H-1B, and clean the morons running the Universities and totally overhaul the K-12 schools so that kids are coming out with an education, instead of making them repeat much of high school in college. You will then have 4 years to actually train Scientists and Engineers rather than giving the idiots in the sociology and English departments a crack at brainwashing.

The latter won't happen, however, because the inmates are being allowed to run the asylum.

ROI
So you're saying that there is a return on the time and money investment in a doctorate? I strongly disagree. Anyone who is good can earn middle six figures in IT with a bachelors after 5 years. What would be the point of putting off starting for 4-5 years so that you would likely be ineligible for these jobs.

People are looking for real skills: communication, certain tools and technologies, and project management. Frankly these are unattainable in the universities that I've been to.

I think we should open our doors to immigrants of all education levels. I think opening our doors specifically to people with doctorates would be akin to choosing a specialized profession... say jewelers and giving them preference. What purpose would that serve?

FORGET INDENTURED SERVANT PROGRAMS: CREATE QUALITY CITIZENS

FORGET INDENTURED SERVANT PROGRAMS: CREATE QUALITY CITIZENS
H-1B visas, like guest workers, is just another indentured servant program. If corporations want such people, they must be made to sponsor them to the extent of providing the means for them becoming citizens within 2 years on pain of deportation. That means only people committed to becoming citizens should be imported under H-1B. Such a program will of course ensure that fewer American students than ever choose science and engineering as careers where, in any event, we have had a surplus because of the 6-yeaar rule since at least 1970. This is not about qualified personnel, it is about cheap wages. As the supply of imported labor and the threat of exported jobs enlarges, science and engineering students will increasingly be foreigners. They too, with exceptions, should be offered citizenship, say, 2-3 years after graduation if they qualify. That way the corporations would get their indentured servants for at least the 2-3 years after graduation. They were likely going to get rid of a good many in 6 years anyway.
The benefit is that new citizens of high intellectual and educational attainment will be imported to offset the influx of the intellectually and educationally deprived immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America. Guest workers from this group (and existing illegal working aliens) should be admitted under the same requirements as for H-1B immigrants, provided present laws are enforced and the border made much tighter. After such a guest worker becomes a citizen, then he can import his immediate family, not before. In that regard, Dr. Down (of Down’s syndrome fame) in England wrote in the 1890s of idiot-savants of 50-70 IQ at his hospital being able to read! But not with understanding. Now why is it we have trouble teaching 5 of 20 boys today to read?
The Mexican elite are content to keep things as they are for their people: near hopeless for most, with near half underemployed; the only out for their deprived and foreclosed young people reduced to either a life of crime or emigration to America where they serve as an escape valve for the hopeless who might otherwise be troublemakers; and as suppliers of remittances to prop up their failed government and economy.
American born students of the highest intellectual levels will, as a result of foreign labor, be increasingly encouraged to divert to those areas of enterprise, business and finance most in need of their talents and integrity.
As corporations experience anew that expected performance of their favored new employees reduces to near zero after 6 years, there will be a need for increasing numbers of H-1B employees as the old ones are let go or diverted to the level of their performance. Much the same story obtains for Mexican immigrants: demand for cheaper foreign labor keeps enlarging the supply to America from the bottomless pit of hopeless citizens cast of by the equally bottomless Mexican corruption, anti-capitalism, and incompetence.
The mere 2-3+ SD IQ students can fill technical and managerial slots across the board where their creativity will work to continually improve performance. We might, if we pay a sufficiently large differential, even entice them to go into k-12 math and science teaching. However, continued importation of cheap intellectual labor may well render good math and science teaching unnecessary. What rational student is going to study hard for jobs probably limited in pay and longevity except those who truly feel it as a calling. Ordinary arithmetic and basic statistics are all the skills needed in 99.9% of jobs, while admittedly a knowledge of geometry, trigonometry, and algebra has some potential but rare use for the top 10% at most and so should be offered.
Since the business of America is business, the diversion of top students and their creative talents from math and science to entrepreneurial activities, business, and finance should enormously increase productivity, profits, and the tax take, so long as the foreigners keep coming. When they stop, wages and longevity will increase and begin to attract Americans again.
Forget about creating new classes of indentured servants. Create first class, highly productive and committed genuine citizens instead.

Make Programs Available
Very few universities have programs available for working college graduates to obtain higher level degrees.
There are some well known MBA programs, but few engineering programs.
Also, many companies offer in-house training, but no credit that could be applied to higher degrees.
IF and I repeat IF there is a serious shortage of MS and PhDs needed by employers, not universities, then I would suggest the degree system be modified to permit those working individuals to earn higher degrees.
But, if what I suspect is true, the shortage of MS and PhD candidates exists because many Americans won't work for the slave wages paid by graduate school programs or can't afford the exhorbatant costs of graduate school, the issue is not brain power shortage, it is keeping the university-government complex funded.

No Subject
Actually my earlier response was more to show that an initial granting of citizenship to a foreigner pursuing a higher education degree has allowed an infusion of talent and ability into more than a single area of american industry (not just limited to teaching and government labs only). The amount of pay was never mentioned or implied just an anecdotal account of how the emmigration of educated citizens (from the world over) can have beneficial effects in more than a single industry.

On a side note...
I can mention that in response to the slave wages being paid to graduate students some universities are changing the fundamental nature of what a graduate student needs to complete to get an MS or PhD. I know, in my time, that UCLA instituted not only a test only MS program (with no requirements of independent research or the need for being kept at slave wages for any length of time) that allows capable students to finish quite easily complete the program in a couple of years, but also dropped one of the minors required for the doctorate, thereby easing those restrictions somewhat.

I would tend to agree with the earlier poster that a doctorate is never a valuable commodity from an investment standpoint, but the MS (at least in engineering) is a very valuable degree for any dedicated student. The loss in income for those two years of study are easily supplanted by the increase in wages after getting the degree.


Mario.

Income loss
Most working in industry cannot afford to the income loss to return full time.
So are we getting the best and brightest or just those willing to be poor grad students?

Immigration
had little or nothing to do with the degraded condition of public education. That is mostly the product of absurd pedagological theories mostly coming out of various education institutes that devalued grounding in basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Don't blame the immigrants. We allowed our own to do this to our education system. It's the worst sort of thinking to point to a group of outsiders and claim that they are the root of all evil.

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