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Minorities and Foreign Nationals--A Physicist’s Perspective on the Job Market

W ith the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks fast approaching and the United States establishing the new Department of Homeland Security, the role and impact of foreign scientists in this country are being closely examined. MiSciNet recently asked Dr. Keith Jackson, president of the National Society of Black Physicists ( NSBP), his views on the impact that hiring foreign scientists might have on opportunities for underrepresented minority scientists in the United States.

MiSciNet: Does this country need to train more scientists and engineers? For instance, there is apparently an oversupply in the life sciences at the moment, but other areas--such as mathematics, physics, and engineering--might need more people.

Jackson: Pushing the ?education button? is a tried and true method for obfuscating any issue, the case of scientific human resources being a prime example. Consider this simple 5-minute thought experiment:

Just call any government, industry, or academic institution that hires physical scientists--a large national laboratory, a small one, new, old, any location--and talk to the human resources department. Ask if it is true that they reject the vast majority of their scientific applicants without even an interview. After they confirm this, ask them why. The most likely response is that the vast majority of the applicants don't have the training or skill set the employer wants, even though the applicants have a Ph.D. in physics, chemistry, or another science discipline.

Here is what you may conclude from this experiment:

  • Many are incorrect when they claim a lack of "bodies," that is, a lack of people with scientific training. What they really mean (some insincerely, some sincerely) is a lack of African American scientists with work experience in a specific field (e.g., x-ray optics or high-pressure x-ray crystallography).

  • The belief that we need to train more scientists is incorrect. The fields of science change quite rapidly, so it will always be the case that the vast majority of scientists, African American or otherwise, do not have direct experience in the newest fields--no matter how many Ph.D. scientists the schools produce. Producing more Ph.D. scientists would just give employers such as the Department of Energy and other national laboratories more people to reject.

Contrary to the claim some would make--that African American youth lack interest in science careers--the fact is that university enrollment in science programs has historically risen and fallen in almost perfect correlation to the opportunities in the job market. The concern now is that the number of foreign students willing to work for low wages has created a huge disincentive for U.S.-born students, black or white, to major in science. The influx of foreign students has driven down starting salaries so much that a career in physics or any other science and technology field is unattractive. The response of government, industry, or academic institutions to this crisis has been to lobby to increase the quota for foreign scientists using J-1, O, and H-1B work visas as incentives on the basis that cheaper labor is ?good for business.?

To understand the effects of this policy, consider the results of a recent American Institute of Physics (AIP) survey. * During the 1999-2000 academic year, physics departments recruited for over 500 tenure and tenure-track openings. This is the largest annual number of faculty openings in the 15 years that AIP has collected data on hiring trends. However, it should be noted that not all open positions are filled in 1 year. Many departments do not find the candidate they want, and about 20% to 30% of the open positions are rolled over to be included in the recruitment efforts for the following year.

The profile of new faculty members hired by physics departments at primarily undergraduate institutions is very different than at research university departments. Most of the new faculty hired by bachelor's degree-granting institutions are young physicists who earned their Ph.D.s in the United States. By contrast, only 35% of the new faculty hired by Ph.D.-granting departments in 1999 were young scientists from the United States. Almost as many of the new hires were physicists who had earned their Ph.D.s abroad, most of whom were mid-career scientists who had already garnered a strong international reputation for their work. A significant number of the new hires were mid-career level scientists from industry and government labs.

This profile of the new faculty hired by Ph.D.-granting physics departments in 2000 is vastly different from that of 10 to 20 years ago. For example, during the 1980s, only 16% of the new faculty hires were physicists who had earned their Ph.D.s abroad.

There are far fewer U.S. citizens working in Ph.D.-granting institutions and, by extension, in government-funded national laboratories. Even though there are more academic positions available, the increase in the number of foreign nationals recruited for these positions limits the number of positions that remain open for U.S. citizens at Ph.D.-granting institutions.

I would also raise the question of fundamental fairness. Consider the employment opportunities available in the United States to a scientist from the European Union. In most cases, it is next to impossible for a U.S. citizen to work as a paid member of the scientific staff in a career position at either an academic institution or European laboratory such as a Max Plank institute or the European synchrotron light sources. In many cases, such as the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, it is even impossible for a U.S. citizen to take advantage of the facility on the basis of a peer-reviewed proposal. Yet, our national laboratories are completely open for both career opportunities and scientific research for members of the European Union. Thus, the U.S.-born scientist as a practical matter really only has access to the scientific job market in the United States, whereas his or her European counterpart has access to opportunities in the United States and the European Union. If the population of scientists is equal, for example, then the European Union member has access to twice as many job opportunities as his or her U.S. counterpart.

MiSciNet: Some would argue that there simply are not enough trained minority scientists available to work in government, industry, or the academy, perhaps as a result of the proverbial leaky pipeline. Thus, reaching out to the pool of foreign scientists is a necessary option. How would you respond?

Jackson: First, let me point out that if there were indeed an undersupply of scientists, you?d see hyperinflation of salaries, which of course is simply not the case in any field of science. For example, a graduating Ph.D. in physics at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California currently receives a starting postdoctoral salary between $39,312 and $55,788. The other national laboratories and the National Institutes of Health offer similar salaries. According to the laws of labor economics, if there is no hyperinflation of salaries, then there can be no labor shortage. However, I do think that there is a shortage of U.S. citizens who are willing to spend 10 or more years to get a Ph.D. in physics for a starting salary of $39,312 a year.

In our study focusing on the status of the ?African-American Physicist at the DOE Funded National Laboratories,? we were able to identify only 11 African American Ph.D.-level physicists with career positions in the major DOE-funded national laboratories. This was out of a total of 3200 Ph.D.-level physicists employed by the laboratories. Out of the top 20 physics departments, there are only two African Americans in tenure-track faculty positions. What we conclude from this analysis is that foreign nationals are preferred over African Americans in hiring at these facilities. In fact, the major employers of African American physicists and African American scientists in general have been and continue to be historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In regard to the leaky pipeline issue, NSBP has found the greatest attrition rate for African American students of physics is during graduate school. I need not point out that foreign students dominate many graduate programs in science. With this large supply of foreign students available, there is little or no incentive for these graduate departments to expend the effort to recruit or retain African American or other U.S. students.

I believe that these institutions have a history of discrimination against hiring African Americans in any position. I have often heard from government, industry, or academics that they would consider hiring African American scientists if only they could find one who was qualified. Yet, when NSBP members have presented candidates for postdoc and staff positions at national laboratories, little or no action has been taken. In fact, it has been my experience that it is very difficult even to get my colleagues to read the CV of an African American scientist. If any action is taken, it is normally of the negative type, such as finding some reason why the African American candidate is not qualified for the position.

MiSciNet: Do you really believe that the reason so many foreign scientists are allowed to come to the United States is simply to reduce the cost of scientific labor? Financially, is it cheaper to bring over foreign scientists or to train U.S. minorities?

Jackson: There is no question in my mind that the main concern is to reduce the cost of doing research and reduce the employer's commitment and liability to the lowest level possible. The best and the brightest in the eyes of business and government seem to be the cheapest and most pliable. The financial incentive to hire foreign nationals is tremendous. In addition, the effect of deteriorating terms of employment and depressed wages has had a steady cumulative effect on the relative attractiveness of advanced technical training for the best U.S. students, particularly African Americans.

By any standard you care to apply, for employers in the United States, this is a buyer's market. U.S. laboratories and universities can pick from tens of millions of people around the world to get the brightest, best-educated people--educated on somebody else's dime. In the case of U.S. citizens, you would have to pay to train them, and then they would have the expectation of full-time career employment with benefits.

The growing influx of foreign Ph.D. scientists into U.S. labor markets will hold down the level of Ph.D. salaries to the extent that foreign students are attracted to U.S. doctoral programs as a way of immigrating to the U.S. One way to look at this for this group is that the Ph.D. salary premium is much higher than for Americans, because it is based on B.S.-level pay in the foreign students' home nations versus Ph.D.-level pay in the United States. For the U.S. citizen, the salary differential (the difference between the starting Ph.D. salary and B.S. salary) is much lower.

I would also like to point out that the income of a foreign national with a J-1 visa, typically used for postdoctoral appointments, is not subject to U.S. income taxes. This puts the foreign national at a 15% salary advantage compared to the U.S. citizen in the same postdoctoral position.

MiSciNet: In a recent issue of Science (10 May 2002, p. 996), it was reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has adopted a policy by which it will no longer apply for visas to permit foreign scientists to work in its labs. Due to recent heightened security concerns because of 9/11, has this caused a slowdown in the hiring of foreign scientists compared to minority scientists in the national laboratories?

Jackson: There has been some slowdown of hiring of foreign nationals in the national laboratories due to security concerns, but NSBP has not detected any commensurate increase in the hiring of African Americans. In fact, I would attribute the slowdown in hiring of foreign nationals more to the result of uncertainty in research funding than to security concerns.

I would like to point out that if federal agencies are going to be competitive in performing research in the name of homeland security, it does not make sense to hire foreign scientists for these types of positions. For example, if the United States Air Force has a shortage of fighter pilots, it would not go out and lobby Congress to hire fighter pilots from the former Soviet Union.

MiSciNet: Has NSBP formed partnerships with other groups such as NOBCChE, SACNAS, AISES, and NSBE to focus on these types of issues?

Jackson: We are anxious to join with these organizations on this and many other issues facing the community of African American scientists. For example, NSBP would like NOBCChE to join us in calling for a meeting with the secretary of energy and the director of the Office of Science and National Nuclear Security Administration to discuss our concerns.

MiSciNet: A small number of minority scientists hold postdoc positions in national laboratories and academia. You recognize this with regard to African American Ph.D. physicists. What are the actual numbers, and are there any initiatives in place to deal with this problem?

Jackson: NSBP has been unable to identify with confidence the number and status of African American postdocs in the DOE national laboratories. This is an area of great concern because we fear that the number of postdocs in physics is even smaller than the number of African American physicists with career positions within the DOE laboratories. Some of the initiatives that the NSBP is working on include:

  • NSBP summer institutes--intense 10-week summer schools, open to all but held in the African American community. They would provide advanced instruction in hot topical areas of science such as nanoscience, string theory, biophysics, advanced computation, and neutron science.

  • Joint research appointments for faculty from HBCUs at national laboratories.

  • Insistence that more African Americans serve on national technical panels with government agencies such as NASA, DOE, NSF, and NRC. NSBP could serve as a resource to identify scientists to work on these panels.

  • Development of a professional networking infrastructure that would be a support system for African American physics students.

* Ivie and Stowe, 2000 Academic Workforce Survey (AIP Statistical Research Center Department Chairs Conference, June 2002).

Dr. Jackson is associate director of the Center for X-ray Optics in the Materials Sciences Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. For further information regarding this interview, please send e-mail to