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Globalization of Science Brings Visa, Workforce Issues to the Fore

As science becomes increasingly globalized with the growth of major physics research facilities in Europe, Japan and Russia, the US is shifting its focus to a consortium approach, according to speakers at an April Meeting session. However, the country is facing a dwindling workforce. For decades, it has relied on foreign-born workers, but tightening restrictions on visa requirements in the post-9/11 environment are making this option less attractive to foreign students and scientists.

Charles Shank, former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, cited SLAC’s B factory and Fermilab’s D0 collaboration as examples of consortium-style projects. Many of these rely heavily on foreign-born workers. As a measure of US dependence on foreign collaborators, he pointed to recent statistics: non-DOE visitors to the national labs number about 25,000 annually, of which 17,500 are visits of 30 days or more. Of those visitors, 50% are non-citizens and 16% are from sensitive countries. Nearly 40% of US faculty members are foreign born, as are fully one-third of US scientists awarded Nobel Prizes.

Unfortunately, there is a growing perception among potential foreign collaborations that the US is not an attractive program for large consortium projects, and one of the largest factors in that perception is continued visa difficulties. US visa laws often serve to prevent visiting scientists from participating in very long-range research projects. The most enduring problem, according to Shank, is the 214b requirement that incoming students, visitors and post-docs must prove their intention to return home after their visit. For visitors from "sensitive" countries who are currently working in England or Germany, for example, this is often considered proof of instability by consular officials.

While there is currently a proposed bill in Congress to relieve foreign visa applicants of this 214b burden, it is unlikely to pass. "If the situation is not addressed, the US will be perceived as the wrong place to put the next generation of international facilities," Shank cautioned.

"Government officials often resist these complaints by suggesting that the scientific community is irresponsible and insensitive to national security needs. This perception must be changed."

Tougher visa restrictions also impact incoming graduate students, according to Alice Gast, MIT’s vice president for research and associate provost. Of the 27.8 million visas issued in 2003, 20.1 million were for tourism and 940,000 for F1 and J1 visas; of those, 131,000 were for graduate students. The US currently hosts 500,000 international students, and the percentage increased rapidly from 1982 through 2000.

However, a study in 2003 by the American Institute of Physics conducted in 2003 found a 10% decline in foreign physics graduate students from 2000-2002. Fully two-thirds of the physics departments responding indicated that there were some visa denials for students accepted for admission to US graduate programs that prevented them from attending.

Gast believes that the visa duration must be extended to better meet the needs of research programs and prospective students, and that more re-entry visas are needed to allow students and scholars to attend conferences outside US borders.

There have been some improvements, according to Gast. The State Department now gives priority to student visa applications, and Mantis (security review) delays are decreasing. Re-entry is less of a problem for visa holders from many non-sensitive countries, since Mantis reviews are now good for four years. And while Gast has seen a drop in foreign applications to MIT since 2002, she added that there has been no evidence that the quality of those applicants has decreased.

Ron Webb, manager of doctoral recruiting and university relations at Procter and Gamble, is less optimistic about the future, despite these minor improvements. His company runs a $50 billion business in nine countries on four continents, and also operates 20 R&D programs with a research workforce of 7500. P&G employs 900 PhD-level scientists and roughly 50 doctoral candidates each year.

But the number of US doctorates awarded has been flat or declining for decades, so the company has become increasingly dependent on the supply of foreign doctoral students in the US. Even that solution is becoming less viable as the competition for scientific talent intensifies as the hiring pool shrinks and other countries catch up to the US in technological and industrial development. The situation will only become more severe as the baby boomers begin to retire.

Furthermore, visa difficulties are dissuading many US companies from pursuing foreign hires. And federal funding for math and science in the US continues to decline in the face of a soaring federal budget deficit.

"All in all, it is clear that future doctorate production in the US will not meet business demands, and there will be little chance of balancing hiring with the retaining of foreign workers," Webb said. "Where is the future workforce? The answer is obvious. Companies will move to where the workforce is, and will act to create more work overseas."

James Langer, vice president of the National Academy of Sciences and a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, cautioned in an earlier session on globalization that the long-standing US dominance in science and technology is rapidly eroding. Many nations are catching up to the US in the granting of patents and graduate degrees, and the best foreign students who study in the US are opting to return home after finishing their degrees. At the same time, industry is developing rapidly in many underdeveloped global regions. "We must learn to live in this new world," he said, emphasizing that "Global prosperity is in everybody’s interest."

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff