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.
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).