APS News

Book Review

by Brian Schwartz, Brooklyn College

Soothing the Establishment:
The Impact of Foreign-Born Scientists and Engineers on America
,
by David S. North [University Press of America, Inc., 1995].

The impact of foreign-born students on graduate programs, their employment patterns, and their impact on the U.S. labor market has recently become more significant because of the tight labor market for Ph.D. scientists in this country, which is forcing a re-examination of the situation by potential employers, academia, industry and government. With the support of the Sloan Foundation, David S. North has written a monograph on the impact of foreign-born scientists and engineers on the scientific and engineering enterprise in the U.S. and worldwide.

North drew his title from the "soothing" effect the policy of admitting foreign-born scientists and students has had in this country, insuring the supply of high-quality, lower-wage students and workers for academia and industry. The book starts off with an overview of the issues, some representative data, and definitions and characteristics of foreign-born scientists and engineers (FBSEs). The remaining six chapters discuss such issues as the different motivations of U.S. and foreign-born students, the complex admissions and employment processes for foreigners seeking to enter graduate schools and the U.S. labor market, and their impact on U.S. education and industry, closing with a final chapter containing conclusions and recommendations.

North's technique is to pose a series of questions and proceed to give the best answer, sometimes supported by good data, but often by incomplete data, or anecdotal information and logical reasoning. This is understandable, since the overall statistical numbers, attitudes, longitudinal studies, and percentages of FBSEs returning to their country are relatively poor, and are scattered among various federal agencies and professional societies. It is clear that the U.S. scientific community, led by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation, should work with the professional societies to develop better and more up-to-date data, including some long-term longitudinal studies on FBSEs.

Predictably, North argues that the large number of FBSEs has lowered wages paid to scientists and engineers relevant to other professions such as medicine, law and business. He repeatedly states the consequences of the fact that the U.S. labor market could easily rely upon highly-qualified FBSEs to meet its needs, thereby relieving our society's need to improve science and math education and develop and encourage appropriate representation from minorities and women.

The book allows both U.S. citizens and foreign-born readers to focus on their own relationship to the problem. North demonstrates convincingly that the foreign-born students in the U.S. are generally among the elite of their own nation and easily as good - and often better-prepared - than their U.S. counterparts. On the other hand, he also demonstrates the downward effect foreign-born scientists have had on wages by enabling industry to replace middle-aged scientists and engineers with younger, more recently-trained FBSEs. In academia, foreign-born scientists and graduate students make significant contributions to research and teaching, but the large pool of Ph.D. graduates results in seriously underpaid postdoctoral positions.

North concludes with a series of suggestions for dealing with the situation. These include improving the economic incentives for U.S. citizens to study science, cutting back on industry's use of foreign non-immigrant labor, and adjusting the immigration of foreign-born scientists to include a mandatory two-year return of students after completing study in the U.S. Finally, he encourages professional societies to become stronger advocates for the economic well-being of their memberships.

One thing is certain: the pattern and rationale for FBSEs to study in the U.S. will continue to evolve and change. The repressive environment in communist China and the collapse of the former Soviet Union resulted in a large influx of students from these countries, for example. There are, however, some emerging trends that are not included in North's study, related to the strong growth of foreign economies, especially in Taiwan, Korea, India and China.

Although somewhat provocative, North's book does not take a nationalistic or xenophobic stand. His arguments are well-reasoned, and overall the work is a significant contribution to our understanding of the overall impact of FBSEs on the current and future labor markets and academia. It should be read by all interested in scientific and engineering employment trends.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin