Wednesday, November 16, 2005

America, Foreigners, and Academic Science

While most bloggers and conservatives worry about the latest front on the culture wars ... the REAL crisis in American Science continues to simmer.

From an OpEd by Stuart Anderson in today's NY Times:

Foreign graduate students, particularly those who study science or engineering,
are a boon to the American economy and education system. They are critical to the United States' technological leadership in the world economy: according to a study by Keith Maskus, an economist at the University of Colorado, for every 100 international students who receive science or engineering Ph.D.'s from American
universities, the nation gains 62 future patent applications. International students have founded many of America's most innovative companies, including Sun Microsystems and Intel.
America needs academics. We support the US economy. But grad-students and postdocs in academic labs are treated like crap here - low wages, little security. Keep in mind however that conditions in the US are much better off than elsewhere, and most of the big labs where you can get the best trainning are still American labs. Result - very few Americans are in research and thus the US relies on foreigners to fill it's academic institutions. But can this go on? The number of academics coming across the border to work in the US is falling.

Although it's easy to blame tightened post-9/11 visa policies for stagnating or declining international student enrollment figures, other factors have contributed to this unfortunate trend. Among them are fierce competition for students with Britain, Japan and other countries; improvements in the economies and universities of China and India, the countries that send the largest number of students here; the cost of an American education; and a perception that the United States is not interested in attracting international students.
So the US is having problems getting foreign workers to come. Now more science may be done outside the US (see my post on Outsourcing Science).

And furthermore, what's happening to foreign academics after they're finished with their gradstudies and postdocs at American institutions? Many, unable to get permanent status, are leaving. I personally know 4 individuals in my direct working environment who are dealing with green cards and are in limbo with regard to their current residency status.
Finally, and perhaps most avoidably, the United States makes it exceedingly difficult for our foreign-born science and engineering doctorates to stay in the country, where they might work in our private sector, conduct research in our labs or teach at our universities. It can take two years or more to gain permanent residency, and there are significant backlogs in applications for employment-based green cards.
Again the US should pay attention to all this if they wish to stay ahead of the curve.