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Academic H-1Bs by the numbers

It has been almost 2 years since scientific superstars Bruce Alberts, a former National Academy of Sciences president and former Science editor-in-chief; Marc W. Kirschner, founding chair Harvard Medical School’s Department of Systems Biology; Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University; and Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and former director of the National Cancer Institute, published a widely discussed article warning that an excessive supply of biomedical Ph.D.s has made the research enterprise “unsustainable” and offers young scientists “salaries that are quite low considering their extensive education.” The article called for reductions in the numbers of postdocs and graduate students and noted how the “large influx of foreign” graduate students and postdocs short-circuits the market mechanisms that would “normally be expected” to moderate the supply of aspiring researchers and raise their pay. 

Rather than following this advice, however, universities have continued to import large numbers of foreign workers, not only for lab jobs as postdocs but for a wide range of other roles, often (but far from always) using the H-1B high-skill guest worker visa. This visa permits holders of at least a bachelor’s degree to work in the United States for up to 6 years, and the complicated and obscure rules governing it allow companies and academic institutions to pay these guest workers low wages. (Employers are technically required to pay the “prevailing wage” for the type of work performed, but in practice there are various ways of manipulating that wage.) In addition, the visa belongs to the employer rather than to the employee, so workers generally cannot move to other jobs. Many foreigners are willing to accept these conditions because the visa provides entrée to the United States.

The number of H-1Bs available to profit-making companies is limited by an annual cap established by Congress, but universities are exempt from this cap, as the result of a deal made in 2000 between lobbyists for the tech industry and for universities. In exchange for supporting legislation to give industry more visas, universities got “an offer [their] lobbyists could not refuse”: the ability to get as many H-1Bs as they want, writes demographer Michael Teitelbaum in his 2014 book Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.

The result is that, at present, H-1Bs working at universities “include 21,754 professors, lecturers and instructors, 20,566 doctors, clinicians and therapists, 25,175 researchers, post-docs and biologists, plus 30,000 financial planners, p.r. experts, writers, editors, sports coaches, designers, accountants, economists, statisticians, lawyers, architects, computer experts and much else,” Neil Munro reports at Breitbart News Network. (Disclosure: As part of his research, Munro spoke with and quotes this reporter, who had no part in preparation of his piece.) “All told, the universities and their corporate allies brought in 18,109 ‘cap exempt’ new H-1Bs from January to December 2015,” Munro continues. “They brought in 17,739 new H-1Bs in 2014, 16,750 in 2013, 14,216 in 2012, 14,484 in 2011, and 13,842 in 2010, according to a website that tracks the visas, MyVisaJobs.com. That’s an accumulated extra resident population of up to 95,140 foreign professionals working in universities in 2015.”

Munro also provides data that support the four scientists’ statement about academic scientists’ often abysmal incomes, which are paid by institutions that have the ability to provide visas to as many foreign workers as they wish and therefore have little incentive to raise salaries. “The salaries paid to U.S. academic scientists have stalled,” Munro writes. “Survey data shows that commercial employers pay far higher salaries than academic employers, and that average 2014 salaries didn’t exceed $60,000 until after age 34. In 2015, … academic life-science salaries averaged out to $90,843, versus $131,079 in the commercial sector. The university vs. commercial salary gaps are also visible at job-search sites, even though scientists in both workplaces perform similar work. An entry-level postdoc scientist in a university earn[ed] roughly $44,000, while [a] new ‘research associate’ at a minor drug-company earned $70,000.”

Munro makes a further important point that journalists have overwhelmingly missed the existence of universities’ exemption from the cap. Thanks to “clever advocates—and gullible reporters” who do not know of universities’ special treatment under the visa law, the discussion of the H-1B has concentrated on “a boring, complex, semi-technical dispute over the hiring of low-status computer-experts by Facebook and various unfamiliar outsourcing companies.” This focus draws attention away from the fact that temporary guest workers at universities hold “many good jobs—professors, clinicians, business majors, researchers and designers—that [could provide a] pathway to professional success” for educated young Americans, he writes.

Clearly, Munro is angry, which doubtlessly contributes to his sometimes overly flamboyant tone. But his essential argument comports not only with the views of the four famous scientists, but also with the conclusions of numerous studies and reports and many leading economists who study the scientific and technical labor market. Some of the presidential candidates also agree. In the department of strange political bedfellows, in November, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders joined Republican candidate Donald Trump in calling for employers to pay H-1B workers more, Patrick Thibodeau reported at Computerworld. Republican candidate Ted Cruz also shows signs of possibly becoming an H-1B critic, Thibodeau added. “We must substantially increase prevailing wages that employers pay temporary guest workers,” states the immigration policy that Sanders issued in November. “[I]f there is a true labor shortage, employers must offer higher, not lower wages.”

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