STEM Visa Reform Bills Would Exclude Biosciences

The campaign to allow more foreign-born students earning advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to live and work in the United States after graduation has typically embraced all STEM graduates and ignored which STEM degrees are most marketable. But Congress seems to be waking up to the fact that life scientists probably face the stiffest competition for jobs. The result is an emerging but below-the-radar consensus that foreign-born graduates in the biosciences should not be given the same shot at permanent residency as those in other STEM fields.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives came tantalizingly close to passing a STEM visa bill with such restrictive language. The Republican-backed measure, sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), calls for a new employment-based visa category for up to 55,000 STEM graduates each year. It failed to clear the unusually high bar—a two-thirds majority—needed for passage after Democrats sapped support for it by introducing their own bill.

The floor debate on Smith's bill—the Democratic alternative, drafted by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), was never brought to a vote—was highly partisan. Democrats accused Republicans of secretly trying to reduce immigration by pointing to a provision that eliminated another visa program, based on a lottery, and language that prevented any unused STEM visa slots from being transferred to another visa category.

No legislator from either party mentioned the parsing of STEM fields that Smith had inserted into his bill. But those who track the scientific workforce say that Smith is right to exclude those in the biosciences from qualifying for the new STEM visas.

"The people who wrote this bill seem to have done their homework," says Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer and senior adviser at the Albert P. Sloan Foundation in New York City. "They have avoided the sledgehammer approach of saying that everybody in a STEM field is the same, which is not true."

An aide to Smith, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, explained that the biosciences were excluded because "there is a very high unemployment rate in that sector already. It doesn't make sense to make it any harder" for U.S. citizens looking for work in that sector, the aide says.

Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta, says that political recognition of those labor trends is long overdue. "It is encouraging to see that someone is getting the message that the job situation is not that great in the biomedical sciences," says Stephan, whose recent book, How Economics Shapes Science, explores that issue in some detail. "To say unemployment rates are high is an exaggeration but the evidence is quite convincing that the job market for research positions for newly trained Ph.D.s in the biomedical sciences has been less than robust for a number of years and has only worsened recently."

The actual language in Smith's bill excluding biosciences is obscure. But it's essential for understanding how the biosciences are excluded. The legislation defines STEM as "… a field included in the Department of Education's Classification of Instructional Programs [CIP] taxonomy within the summary groups of computer and information sciences and support services, engineering, mathematics and statistics, and physical sciences." Each phrase corresponds to a different CIP code: Computer and information sciences and support services is CIP code 11, for example, and engineering is CIP code 14. And none overlaps with the fields included in the biological and biomedical sciences, which is CIP code 26.

Zofgren's bill contains identical language defining which STEM fields are eligible. An aide says that was done to make her bill as similar as possible to Smith's on topics in which the two legislators did not disagree. A STEM visa reform bill that Zofgren introduced last year did not exclude the biosciences, the aide notes.

A Senate counterpart to Zofgren's bill, by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), also contains the same definition of STEM-eligible fields. But the issue is apparently below Schumer's radar. An aide insisted to ScienceInsider that his boss's bill, dubbed the BRAINS Act, does not exclude graduates in the biosciences. But in the next breath, he said: "We are going to work to fix that problem in a future bill, by explicitly including the biological and biomedical sciences."

To date, the biomedical community has been silent on the exclusionary language. A higher-education lobbyist who follows biomedical issues said shortly before the vote on Smith's bill that her organization wasn't even aware of the narrow definition of STEM fields, and another said her organization had taken no official position on the issue. A lobbyist for the biotech industry confessed that he wasn't even tracking the legislation and that the exclusion had never come up in discussions with member companies.

That indifference reflects the tough job market for life scientists, Stephan and Teitelbaum say. "I'm not hearing from the biotech community that there is a shortage of applicants," Teitelbaum says. "We don't have good data on recent hiring, but it sure doesn't look like a booming industry."

Stephan hopes that the pending legislation will have an impact on those even earlier in the STEM pipeline. "Perhaps the language in this bill will send a message, not only to international students but also to U.S. students, to think twice about their job prospects before committing to 7 years of training!" she says.

The next Congress is expected to revisit the issue of STEM immigration reform, giving Smith, Zofgren, and Schumer another chance to hammer out their differences. But the question of whether to limit the eligibility pool to STEM fields with the highest market demand may already be settled.