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(Photo: quinn.anya/Flickr)

How Immigrants Make American Science Great

• February 21, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: quinn.anya/Flickr)

While the rest of the world is catching up, the United States is still the leader in quality science research—thanks to people from other countries.

Last week, the National Science Foundation released its biannual report on the state of U.S. science, Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. This report is best known as an occasion to lament the sad state of U.S. science literacy, such as the fact that 45 percent of U.S. men don’t realize that their genes are what determines the sex of their children. But the report is also a valuable analysis of our country’s scientific institutions. The U.S. is the world’s preeminent producer of scientific research: it funds the most research in academia and business, it publishes more science than any other nation, and its scientific papers are disproportionately among the world’s best. So who is responsible for producing all of this science?

To a large degree, the answer is: immigrants. As the president of the National Academy of Engineering put it in a 2005 testimony to Congress, “we are more prosperous and more secure” thanks to the tens of thousands of foreign scientists who come to do research in the U.S.

Foreign postdocs come here because of the international reputation of U.S. universities, but they themselves are a big reason for that reputation.

About 25 percent of the U.S. scientific workforce consists of foreign-born scientists, in both industry and academia. But this statistic understates the crucial role these scientists play in sustaining U.S. preeminence in basic research. A better number is 49 percent: foreign scientists fill nearly half of the mid-level positions that make up the backbone of the scientific labor force at U.S. research universities. These journeyman scientists, known as postdocs, are highly trained researchers who work in temporary positions for relatively low pay. Most higher-level jobs in scientific research require some postdoctoral experience after graduate school, so university faculty can easily staff their labs with well-trained, newly minted Ph.D.-holders who will work for a few years at a relatively low salary, in exchange for career mentorship. Together with the graduate students, postdocs handle the test tubes, write the computer code, and author many of the research papers. Without postdocs, much of the science produced in U.S. labs would not get done.

Because the U.S. research enterprise depends so heavily on postdocs, temporary immigrant labor is an integral part of U.S. science. Science and Engineering Indicators reports that 49 percent of the nation’s 44,000 postdocs are foreign-born, and most of these are non-citizens with temporary visas. These foreign postdocs, who often initially come to the U.S. as Ph.D. students, are willing to face an arcane visa process, endure a long separation from their families, put up with language and cultural barriers, and tolerate weak job security, all in order to do science at U.S. universities. Foreign postdocs, much more than their U.S. citizen colleagues, are dependent on the good graces of the professor they work for. Visa limitations and restrictions on funding for non-citizen postdocs make it more difficult for foreign postdocs to manage their career development by switching labs within the university or taking a new job opportunity elsewhere. This means that, in some cases, foreign postdocs are exploited. A training video on “mentoring international postdocs” offered by the Department of Health and Human Services (which includes the National Institutes of Health, the largest supporter of postdocs), describes a scenario that anyone at an academic research institution is familiar with: Some professors, who are supposed to serve as career mentors, hire foreign postdocs because they’re primarily looking for people who will “work harder for less money.”

Foreign postdocs come here because of the international reputation of U.S. universities, but they themselves are a big reason for that reputation. Because of the federal government’s major investment in academic research over the past six decades, well-funded U.S. universities successfully compete for the best scientific talent around the world. Many of these talented scientists remain here in higher-level research jobs in academia and industry. Those that leave still maintain relationships with colleagues they met, which helps keep U.S. science well-connected internationally.

U.S. universities currently have little trouble attracting talented international scientists, but that won’t be so easy in the future. The competition for global scientific talent is growing. The U.S. still funds more R&D than any other country, but our global share is shrinking, largely thanks to increases in R&D in Asia. According to Science and Engineering Indicators, the U.S. share of world-wide R&D spending dropped by nearly 25 percent over the past decade, while Asia’s contribution, mainly from China and Japan, rose by more than a third. Over the last decade, China has become, after the U.S., the second-largest producer of scientific publications in the world. On average these publications are less influential than scientific papers from Europe and North America, but that is changing quickly. China’s proportion of the world’s most-cited scientific papers is now six times larger than it was 10 years ago. China’s maturing research institutions are a net benefit for the world, but they will eventually make it more difficult for U.S. labs to compete for talented Chinese postdocs.

Science has always been most successful when countries exchange ideas, talent, and resources, which is why one of the National Research Council’s “ten breakthrough actions” recommended to Congress is to “ensure that the United States will continue to benefit strongly from the participation of international students and scholars in our research enterprise.” Our scientific preeminence relies heavily on migrant scientists, and that’s a good thing.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

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