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By Tawanda W. Johnson
A significant portion of APS international student members say they have experienced delays in processing their visas to study in the United States, according to a recent survey carried out by the Society in conjunction with the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) and the Forum for Early Career Scientists (FECS).
Conducted in the summer of 2019, the survey covered international students who came to the US to earn advanced degrees and international students who chose not to come to the US. More than 700 international members were surveyed. APS also continued its survey of more than 60 department chairs graduating 10 or more PhDs per year. That survey revealed that American universities outside of the top tier experienced a two-year decline of 22% in international applications to physics PhD programs at US institutions. That is a serious problem because universities outside the top 15 generate more than 70% of the nation’s PhDs in physics.
According to the surveys, international students are experiencing numerous challenges in coming to the US and are noticing growing opportunities elsewhere. Attracting the best students in the world provides a critical competitive advantage that is essential to innovation and the STEM workforce. However, the recent decline in applications from physics PhD students to American universities represents an advanced warning of rising economic risk to the US.
Of those students who are trying to come to the US to study, nearly 30% report having challenges obtaining a student visa, and of those reporting challenges:
Of those students who choose not to come to the US:
“I find the current situation to be very disappointing,” said Tiffany Nichols, FGSA chair. “Science does not function when there are geographic hindrances. Professors Matthew Stanley and Daniel Kennefick have written works analyzing similar policies put in place during World War II, which prevented [wider knowledge] of general relativity. I urge lawmakers and community members to read these works, as borders have been historically shown to hinder science.”
Added Jason Gardner, chair of FECS, “if international students are turned off or turned away during the visa application process, we are only hurting our industries of the future.”
Raju P. Ghimire, FGSA’s secretary, explained that when students earn their degrees in the United States and then are forced to take their talents and skills back to another country, it hurts the US innovation pipeline.
The survey probed ways to reverse the downward trend in applications and to have a significant impact on international students’ decisions. Of the respondents who indicated they do not anticipate being able to obtain a green card or permanent residency to stay in the US:
While no one action can overcome all the challenges, the surveys indicate that two policy responses can have an immediate and substantial impact:
The APS Office of Government Affairs, with support from APS members, is working diligently to address the decline in applications by supporting the Keep STEM Talent Act of 2019. The legislation would enable highly skilled international students to declare their intent to both study at US universities, and then, after graduation, pursue a career in the US, with a path to a green card if they secure job offers from US employers.
“We are committed to getting more congressional support for this legislation through a variety of advocacy initiatives. We understand that our nation’s ability to thrive in an increasingly competitive world rests on our ability to invest in our highly talented domestic students and to attract the best and brightest international students to our universities,” said Francis Slakey, APS Chief Government Affairs Officer.
The author is the Senior Press Secretary in the APS Office of Government Affairs.
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