Why the country's reliance on imported brainpower is on a collision course with its home-grown distaste for science.

Credit: Bart Sadowski

By most objective measures, the United States is the undisputed world leader in science and innovation, whether it’s funding for research and development, the number of PhD students it graduates or its share of the world’s patents. For the world’s wealthiest nation, this is hardly a remarkable feat. What is remarkable is that the US accomplished this with a supply of domestic talent whose skills in math and science are, also according to most objective measures, merely mediocre.

Luckily, in the past, many excellent foreign students have shouldered the load, preferring to come here to study and work than stay in their home countries. This import of talent has been valued at more than $13 billion per year. In US science as a whole, a third of all doctoral students are foreign born; in engineering, the figure is nearly twice that.

At times, our dependence on foreign talent mirrors our dependence on foreign oil. For instance, both are affected by terrorism: New immigration rules implemented in the wake of 9/11 created a backlog at the INS so severe that the number of student visas issued fell by nearly a third from its peak in 2001. If the number of visas issued would have remained flat—though up to that point the number had been trending up—the restrictive new rules mean that in the past five years the US issued 300,000 fewer visas, or the equivalent of an entire year’s worth of matriculating foreign-born math and engineering students. Historically, more than half of foreign students who earned their degree in the US remained here to work.

In March of 2003, the house committee on science convened a special meeting to address this growing concern. During the meeting, legislators heard testimony concerning the harsh reality many graduate students and post-doctoral fellows had to contend with: The delay in visa renewals meant that some of these researchers were effectively exiled for months at a time. The committee responded by recommending that overly stringent security requirements be eased. Since then, the situation has improved, and the number of issued visas has begun to rebound.

Unfortunately, relaxing border patrol hasn’t totally solved the problem. The supply of foreign students—again, much like crude oil—is affected by demand in other countries. According to the NSF’s 2005 National Science and Engineering Indicators report, “Asian locations that have been the source of two-thirds of foreign doctoral candidates in the United States are developing their own [science and technology] infrastructures.”

Thanks to newfound wealth and expanding economies, China and India are quickly becoming more attractive places for their homegrown scientists and engineers to stay—or to return to once they have completed US degrees. The number of foreign science and engineering students staying to work in the US peaked in 1996 and has been declining ever since.

Meanwhile, both the percentage of doctoral degrees granted to foreigners and the percentage of scientists in the US who were born elsewhere are at all-time highs, allowing the US to maintain the blistering pace at which it creates new science and engineering jobs. In the past decade alone, the demand for these skill-sets grew at three times the rate of overall civilian employment, to 4.6 million positions.

If we assume that innovation is essential to economic growth, then our entire economy is more dependent than ever on the labors of bright people born elsewhere.

If this supply of foreign minds is threatened, as it appears to be, by a combination of market forces and government blunders, our only alternative is to cultivate a homegrown supply of science professionals. That means tapping high school seniors who are doing worse in science than at any other point in the past decade, according to results from the Dept. of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, which was released last week.

Worse, these are not students who were excelling to begin with. In 2003, when the level of science literacy of 15-year-old Americans was contrasted with that of peers in other countries, the US placed 18 out of 28, ahead of Mexico and Turkey but behind the usual superstars in Asia and Europe.

In absolute numbers the two groups of native-born US citizens most likely to go into science and engineering—white males and Asian Americans—have declined over the past 10 years. The number of white females and underrepresented minorities in science has remained relatively flat. All of these trends are projected to continue.

It is possible that American students’ accelerating disinterest in science and engineering, coupled with a dwindling supply of foreign replacements, would set up a Peak Oil-type scenario in the US, where demand for these workers continues to grow while supply plateaus and then dwindles.

This would be the part of the story when a strong leader steps up to dangle a carrot in front of a scientifically complacent American populace and prevent such a scenario. Forty-five years ago, on May 25, 1961, with the embarrassment of Sputnik still fresh in the collective memory, President Kennedy did just that, declaring that the US would put a man on the moon inside a decade.

Thus far, President Bush has recognized the problem, responding with the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which includes increased funding for basic research, education and job training. The ACI also further addresses the immigration policies that have bedeviled foreign scientists studying and working in the US.

All of this is admirable, but it comes from a president who consistently demonstrates a disdain for areas of science that disagree with his personal ideology. Again and again, whether it is stem cells or energy policy or global warming or the dubious need to “teach the controversy,” Bush has demonstrated that he is, literally, anti-rational—opposed to the assumptions about proof and inquiry without which science would be merely alchemy.

It would be absurd to blame a politician for a nationwide decline in scientific interest, but it stands to reason that a president elected, and then re-elected, must in some way embody the beliefs of the electorate—here, specifically, its prioritization of science.

We have just entered a century that will present unprecedented commercial opportunity in computer science, biotechnology and nanotechnology as well as unimaginable challenges in the form of energy and resource shortages, disease epidemics and climate change. Addressing the root causes of the erosion of our scientific knowledge base should be one of our nation’s highest priorities. This is our Sputnik.

Bryan Wolin contributed research to this editorial.

Originally published May 31, 2006

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