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Coming to America

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

WASHINGTON—In late March, in honor of National Poetry Month (April), The New York Times invited readers to submit original haiku (three-line, 17-syllable poems) about life in the city. On 25 April, approximately 100 were published, including this one by Millet Israeli:

cab driver Ahmed
used to be an engineer
American dream?

Topping the list for the scientists who chose the United States were career improvement and prestige, followed closely by availability of financial support. On lifestyle, the United States lost out to a number of other countries.

I encountered this cryptic and affecting portrait of Ahmed at the end of a month when I had been thinking a good deal about people like him: foreign-born science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers living in the United States. Two events inspired these ruminations: a widely noted and controversial article by four scientific luminaries and a scholarly conference of science labor force experts. It was the poet’s question mark, however, that best summed up what I had learned: how contradictory U.S. policies and their intended and unintended consequences seem to be.  

As Science Careers reported at the time, the article, published 14 April in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), calls for "fundamental" reform of the U.S. biomedical research system. Authors Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science; Marc W. Kirschner, founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School; Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University; and Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and current director of the National Cancer Institute, warn that "long-term decline" threaten this "unsustainable hypercompetitive system," which is characterized by overproduction of scientists, dwindling ability for researchers "to produce their best work," and widespread frustration and disillusion.

One reason is a continuing "large influx of foreign applicants" that prevents the labor market from "respond[ing] to classic market forces" that, in a properly functioning system, should signal fewer aspirants to enter the field. (The blame for this of course rests with the policies governing the system, not with the international applicants who innocently follow those policies.) The authors of the PNAS article urge reducing numbers of graduate students and postdocs while opening some federal training grants to noncitizens. 

"Innovation Policy and the Economy," a 7 April conference held by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), focused heavily on the multiple connections among foreign-born STEM workers, the U.S. educational system, and the policy structure that governs student and guest-worker flows into the country. Though the conference preceded publication of the PNAS article, several of the presentations helped clarify points it raised. In recent decades, the number of international STEM students, postdocs, and workers in this country has increased to the point where they are essential elements of the current STEM system. Any consideration of how the system works, or how it might be improved, therefore requires an understanding of why and how they come to the United States.

Opening avenues

Illuminating those motives was one of the major contributions of the NBER conference. For many of the people coming to the United States to study, said Sarah Turner, professor of economics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, education is not the sole—or, often, even the main—objective. Rather, because of the structure of the U.S. visa system, U.S. higher education serves as a "major pathway" into the American labor market, she said. Green cards, which grant permanent residency and the right to work for any employer, and H-1B guest worker visas, which authorize several years of work for a particular employer, are both available in only very limited numbers. The former generally go to workers already in the country whose employers have petitioned (on their behalf) for a change of status, and the latter "require a costly petition from an employer," Turner and co-authors note in the paper she discussed at the conference.

No such numerical cap limits F-1 student visas for postsecondary study at U.S. institutions. Getting an F-1 visa requires only an acceptance from an American institution and evidence of ability to finance the stay, whether from the applicants' own funds, support from sources in their home countries, or assistantships or fellowships from the U.S. institution or other U.S. sources. Then, once students earn a U.S. degree, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program modifies the F-1 visa to allow STEM graduates to work in jobs related to their major for up to 29 months. It thus grants trainees time to persuade (or try to persuade) an employer to apply for a longer-term work visa.

This makes "U.S. higher education and entry through the F program … a viable avenue to achieving access to the U.S. labor market," Turner and co-authors write. Increasingly, they add, master's degrees—which take less money than bachelor's degrees and less time than doctorates—are the vehicles of choice.

Another route to what many aspirants hope will be the first job of an American career takes advantage of universities' right to make postdoctoral appointments under either the J-1 scholarly exchange visa or unlimited numbers of H-1B visas. Joining a university lab as a postdoc provides not just training but also a foothold in the labor market and a connection to an American institution that could prove useful in seeking employment. "U.S. higher education credentials," write Turner and co-authors, can "serve a screening function" that helps employers "identify high-skill candidates when the costs of identifying candidates from [abroad] are likely to be prohibitive."

But why here?

Given these realities, it's hardly surprising that career goals rank very high among the motivations that bring mobile international doctoral students and postdocs to the United States, instead of drawing them to other countries, according to a survey of 47,304 randomly selected biology, chemistry, materials science, and earth and environmental sciences researchers from 16 countries that labor economist Paula Stephan of Georgia State University reported on at the conference. Researchers asked these Ph.D.-holders to rate the importance of 10 factors in their decision of where to take their doctorates: the chance to improve career opportunities, prestige or excellence of the university, attractiveness of the place's lifestyle, availability of fellowship support from a host country source, the opportunity to improve one's career outlook at home, previous contacts in the receiving country, lack of comparable programs at home, personal and family reasons, the existence of an exchange program, and fellowship support from a home country source. Topping the list for the scientists who chose the United States were career improvement and prestige, followed closely by availability of financial support. On lifestyle, the United States lost out to a number of other countries.

To explore how people decided where to do a postdoc, the survey added several additional factors: quality of the faculty and the research infrastructure, ability to expand one's professional network, availability of research funding, salary, quality of life, working conditions, and fringe benefits. Once again, the United States led in the factors that reflect institutional standing and quality, such as faculty quality, career improvement, prestige, and quality of infrastructure. Again the United States lagged in lifestyle, as well as in salary, quality of life, working conditions, and fringe benefits. The prestige and faculty quality factors "depend in part on the amount of resources a country invests in research and training," note Stephan and co-authors. This "suggests that the US is a magnet for foreign students and postdocs precisely because [it] has excelled in creating a strong educational and research environment. … Students who come to the US appreciate these strengths, scoring factors that are proxies for the research environment higher than students who go to most other countries for training."

The motives of arriving students and postdocs, as it happens, conveniently mesh with the needs of many increasingly cash-strapped American universities. As Stephan and co-authors note, foreign students "populate graduate programs, contributing to the intellectual life and quality of programs and, particularly at lower-ranked programs, helping to build programs."

Knowledge of the STEM labor market is incomplete, noted Kirk Doran, professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Economists overwhelmingly focus on the supply of potential participants, leaving the demand side—the numbers of available jobs—in need of "more research attention," he said. "Academic markets are strange" and "studying them is hard," he explained. Nor do employers willingly share their hiring plans with economics researchers, Stephan added. Beyond that, talking about supply—and, in many cases, bemoaning its adequacy—can better serve the interests of those who benefit from the present situation. That's true of both educational institutions that seek to increase funding and enrollment, and employers of all kinds who, for a variety of reasons, want to increase the supply of skilled labor.

"Policy discourse in this area often presents the situation as a win-win," Harvard University economist Richard Freeman writes in the paper he presented at the conference. But, he continued—and as Ahmed's disappointment far more poignantly shows—the reality is more complex. The rosiest scenario of the American dream "exaggerates the benefits of admitting more STEM or other highly-educated immigrants to the US and downplays the costs," Freeman's paper continues. And, though we can never know Ahmed's story beyond what's revealed in those 17 syllables, it’s clear that those costs are always paid by real human beings.