Global Workforce Bolsters U.S. Science

Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1211
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1211

Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1950s, the United States gradually earned a dominant position in science and engineering. Those gains were made in part through the influx of foreign-born scientists from Europe, and later from the developing world, who were attracted by the extraordinary research universities and industrial research laboratories that had begun to develop at the end of the previous century. It was an exciting time of change for science. And the changes were not limited to the United States; they proved contagious, as intensified commitments to fundamental research followed in other parts of the world.

Recent news accounts have reported trends that point to a potential loss of “U.S. dominance” in science. Those accounts have often failed to recognize that during the 50-year period of global economic expansion we have witnessed, other countries have developed outstanding science training programs at all levels. Many now offer increasingly supportive environments for research, and they are earning an increasing percentage of the worldwide share of publications and patents. That's the good news about these readjustments in worldwide scientific leadership. But there are sources of concern as well, and these need attention.

First, those considering careers in science and engineering need to be given sufficient support as well as opportunities to pursue their interests. The American people, Congress, the president, and those responsible for science policy in the United States firmly believe that our leadership in science and technology is vital to the long-term welfare of the United States. In relative terms, the United States still outpaces the rest of the world in expenditures on research and development—but the gap is narrowing.

Second, as a science policy-maker, I have become convinced that the supply of truly great scientists and engineers is, by its very nature, so limited that it is the scarcest of all strategic resources. Finding, nurturing, and unleashing the power of the best and brightest is the core challenge for scientific strategists in all countries. Borrowing from my early scientific roots in physics, I see this process as not unlike uranium enrichment: One must try to locate and extract that tiny, hard-to-separate fraction that makes the difference for reaching criticality. Really great scientific talent is not an easily produced commodity; its supply is finite in any system of education.

Third, there is concern about the negative impact that stringent new visa procedures, made necessary by security considerations, could have on the historical attractiveness of the United States as a home for science training. We are challenged here to choose between competing social goods—the health of scientific research and education on the one hand, and our national security on the other. Without sacrificing public safety, we need a system that can allow us to continue to attract the extraordinary young people from other nations who have supported and enriched our homegrown scientific power in the past. Some of them will stay and improve U.S. laboratories and faculties. Others will return to their own countries, increasing understanding in those countries of our science, cultural values, and good will. If we fail in this objective, we may suffer a long-term loss in our ability to help shape the global agenda for science.

I experienced, as a foreign-born scientist, the greatness of a uniquely receptive, open, and merit-based scientific system that is the envy of many of my colleagues around the world. As Goethe once wrote, “Science and art belong to the whole world, and the barriers of nationality vanish before them.” Clearly, the United States has been a world leader in practicing these principles for more than a century. It has reaped untold benefits while also assuming the risk of spending its national resources to provide exceptional opportunities to some of the best minds in the world, from here and abroad. Our record requires us to find ways to lessen the burden of legitimate security concerns on our ability to compete worldwide for the geniuses of tomorrow, while addressing the weaknesses of our own system for science and engineering education. I know that the president and his administration are keenly aware of these issues and are committed to work diligently toward appropriate solutions.

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