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Too Much of a Good Thing?

A National Academies report examines the benefits and costs of the nation's heavy dependence on foreign postdocs

At least since the arrival, 5 years before the Declaration of Independence, of a 22-year-old Scotsman named William Dunbar--who became a pioneer American astronomer, meteorologist, and botanist--foreign-born scientists have played a vital role in the American research enterprise. Most famous is the cohort of refugee physicists who, inspired by Albert Einstein, made the United States the world's first atomic power. Over the years, countless other immigrant brainstorms--plastics, Google, streptomycin to name just a few--have enriched the nation's life and economy. Naturalized citizens have won a third of all U.S. Nobel Prizes, and nearly half of those awarded since 1990.

Recent decades have seen a particularly rapid growth in the international scientific presence in this country. Forty years ago, native-born citizens earned 78% of the science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded by U.S. universities; today they get 61%. Twenty years ago, temporary residents held only 37% of postdoc positions; today they have 58%. Even at the National Institutes of Health, citizens hold a minority--42%--of the postdoctoral, clinical, and research fellowships. And at American universities, foreign-born scientists occupy 19% of the coveted tenure and tenure-track faculty positions to which so many young researchers aspire; among young faculty, the percentage is probably even higher.

These mounting numbers, combined with heightened national security concerns and increased competition from rising scientific powers overseas, are causing increased concern in the American science-policy establishment about the nation's growing dependence on imported talent and its effects on American science and scientists. Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States, a report issued recently by the Committee on Science Engineering and Public Policy of the National Academies, takes a generally favorable view of the continuing influx of foreign-born and often foreign-educated scientists, stating that "to maintain excellence and overall leadership in science and engineering (S&E), the United States must be able to recruit the most talented people worldwide for positions in academe, industry, and government." But with rather less fanfare, the report also paints an unfavorable forecast for America's homegrown scientists, especially for postdocs and others early in their careers.

Mixed Blessings
From the strictly scientific viewpoint, international scientists bring the nation many benefits. But from the standpoint of the nation's strategic need to attract the ablest Americans into scientific careers, the continued dependence on so many non-citizen scientists is increasingly problematic, in the opinion of the report's authors. Foreign-born scientists are as able as the American-born, the report finds, and appear "at least in the recent past, [to] have made a disproportionate number of exceptional contributions to the S&E enterprise in the United States."

Labs across the nation depend on them for a significant portion of the highly skilled labor force they need, in which many able Americans choose not to take part. What's more, international grad students and postdocs show great desire and a high propensity to stay in this country, many finding work in the industries that are "leading contributors to the nation's economic growth," the report notes. Even their children of scientific immigrants are a bonus, "tend[ing] to be highly skilled themselves, creating a beneficial fiscal impact on future innovation capacity."

Full disclosure requires this reporter to reveal her identity as one of those children, though one with no impact, beneficial or otherwise, on future innovation. During the Great Depression my late father, Morris Lieff, a Canadian organic chemist with a brand-new Ph.D., brain-drained to a Chicago industrial lab when no one north of the border was hiring. A number of his grad-school buddies did likewise, and over the years his circle of friends and colleagues expanded to include scientists from Europe, who came because of World War II, and from India and China who came later on. A patent from my dad's war research resulted in a product that produced scores of jobs and lowered construction costs in many mid-century public buildings.

Then, as higher education began expanding rapidly in the 1970s, he accepted a position as the founding dean for science and technology at a newly established college, in which role he also published articles, edited technical books, and served on government commissions--a State Department scientific mission--and on a professional society's board of directors. He took citizenship as soon he could, becoming a proud and enthusiastic "American by choice," as he put it.

I cite my dad's career because it typifies the contributions made by thousands like him over the years. So why the current fear that the arrival of ever more able and industrious people may not be altogether good for either their new colleagues or the country at large?

Because times have changed. Today's young scientific newcomer does not enter the United States the way my dad did, where the war and the long postwar boom had provided young researchers--foreign and domestic--ample opportunities for careers producing a reasonable return on their investments in education and training. Arriving in the United States at the age of 24, my father had already earned his Ph.D. from a prominent university (McGill in Montreal) in 4 years, a typical length of time in those days. He came not as a postdoc on a meager "training" stipend but as a staff scientist able to provide his wife and, eventually, his children, a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in the last years of the Depression and during the war, and a large home, nice vacations, and expensive colleges in the decades that followed.

Jobs were not all that plentiful until the war began, but neither were scientists. And though neither he nor his friends had the prototypic Research I career so many young scientists dream of (my father once rejected a feeler from a top university in order to pursue commercialization of his patent), they all found ample scope to use their talents and training while earning increasingly good livings.

A Changed Reality
Today's young academic scientist, whether native or newcomer, faces a different reality. The academic research enterprise is now an intensely competitive multibillion-dollar establishment, fueled by government money and utterly dependent on inexpensive graduate student and postdoc labor. And although unemployment among scientists is usually low by national standards, earning a Ph.D. now takes an average of 7.5 years, followed, in many fields, by several more years of essentially mandatory postdoc work before researchers have any prospect of a career position with pay near commensurate to their expertise.

For many young Americans bright enough to get a science Ph.D.--and thus bright enough to do the math--these career realities constitute, according to the Implications report, such a "large disincentive for undergraduates considering a research career" as to be "a major factor for domestic students choosing other fields of study" such as law, medicine, or business, which require fewer years of penury and generally produce better outcomes--and incomes. "Lost earnings for [Americans] who undergo graduate training in life sciences are about $25,000 per year of working life compared with other S&E fields and $62,000 per year of working life for compared with professions that do not require a long training period, such as law," the report says.

Such non-scientific careers in the United States, however, are "not easily accessible to international students," the report continues. For ambitious young people from abroad, and especially for those from developing countries, "a graduate degree confers a potential to gain employment in the United States that in most cases is otherwise unavailable." Many international postdocs on temporary vistas are willing to accept incomes well below what Americans with comparable credentials earn--"7% less than citizens," the report states, with an even greater differential for holders of foreign Ph.D.s. International postdocs also put in longer days, ending up, on average, with $14.52 per hour, 11% below the $16.29 that the average citizen-postdocs earn.

So the good news is that "the flow of international students and scholars ... allows the United States to conduct research and education at lower cost than if the country had to rely exclusively on domestic talent." The bad news is that "in the job market, a large supply of students and researchers depresses salaries and job opportunities and thus lowers the incentive for domestic students to enter S&E." There is no evidence, the report indicates, that international scientists actually displace Americans from educational or training opportunities. Rather, they are taking new positions created as the academic research establishment has grown rapidly.

But if the nation is serious about attracting more of America's ablest young people into science careers, then the policy of doing research on the cheap with large infusions of non-citizen labor is inconsistent. It is also at cross purposes with the purported goals of insulating the country from heavy dependence on a potentially unreliable international workforce and of increasing the number of scientists qualified to do national security research.

The nation thus faces a dilemma, the report concludes. It must "maintain or enhance its current quality and effectiveness in S&E," in part by attracting "the best graduate students and postdoctoral scholars regardless of national origin," which depresses pay and prospects. But it also must "make every effort to encourage domestic-student interest in S&E programs and careers," which requires higher salaries and better career opportunities.

For the time being, at least, the supply of international scientists continues to flow, and the report recommends that the nation's policies, including scholarship and immigration procedures, continue encouraging them to come here for study and training. In addition, the report strongly urges collecting better data on international scientists, to provide a basis for future decision-making. Fears that the tighter entry requirements and delays in visa processing that followed the 2001 terror attacks would permanently damage the nation's ability to attract the students and postdocs needed to keep the research machine humming appear to have been exaggerated, the report suggests; though numbers of applications from abroad have fallen, "recent enrollment figures do not indicate a lasting effect of those short-term disruptive events, and they coincide with much broader changes that began to appear long before 9-11," such as the cooling of the U.S. economy after the collapse of the tech bubble.

But when it comes to the challenge of attracting more native-born young people to pursue science careers in a climate of depressed wages and fierce competition, the report is less specific. The factors that motivate Americans' career choices, it says, lie beyond the report's scope. But as befits a group of prominent researchers, the committee recommends that "a study should be undertaken to examine the best policies and programs to achieve that end."