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Perceptions and Realities of the Workplace

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Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1285-1286
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1285

Foreign-born scientists are a growing segment of the U.S. scientific workforce. But what does the trend really mean?

The status of foreign scientists is a sure-fire conversation starter for academics and science policy makers these days. But most discussions of the topic tend to be based on anecdotes, and a little bit of data goes a long way.

Asian ascent.

Asians, both in the United States and at home, earn almost three times the number of natural science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded to U.S. citizens.

SOURCE: SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING INDICATORS 2004

There are, however, a few well-documented trends. The most obvious is that foreign-born scientists are a rising presence in the U.S. workforce (see graph at lower left). Figures from the 2000 census show that foreign-born Ph.D.s make up 38% of the U.S. doctoral-level scientific workforce, up from 23% in 1990. And their share is even larger if those with degrees in the social sciences are excluded (see graph at lower right).

Familiar, not foreign.

The number of foreign-born scientists in the U.S. workforce has grown up to four times faster than the domestic supply between 1990 and 2000, reaching near parity at the doctoral level in most fields.

SOURCES: (TOP TO BOTTOM) U.S. CENSUS 2000; NSF ESTIMATES FROM 1990 AND 2000 CENSUSES

A second trend is that a growing number of foreign scientists working in the United States earned their doctoral degrees in another country. Traditionally, foreign scientists first came to the United States to pursue graduate studies, but now more than one-quarter of the foreign-born Ph.D. scientists in the U.S. workforce immigrated after earning a Ph.D. elsewhere. That shift may reflect both the improved quality of advanced scientific training in Asia and, at the same time, the region's limited ability to provide the postdoctoral training that many disciplines now demand.

A third trend is the increased likelihood that foreign-born scientists will remain in the country after earning their doctoral degrees. Michael Finn, an economist at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in Tennessee, reported recently that 71% of foreigners who earned their degrees in the United States in 1999 were still there in 2001, up from 69% of a 1997 cohort surveyed in 1999 and only 49% for a 1989 cohort tracked 2 years later. For Chinese students who earned U.S. Ph.D.s in 1999, the rate was an astounding 96%. Stay rates were almost as high when Finn tracked degree-holders for 10 years instead of 2, and they did not vary much across cohorts.

Those trends are supported by data, much of it published by the National Science Foundation, whose mission includes charting the health of the U.S. scientific workforce. But they say little about the questions that policymakers most want answered, including whether there are “too many” foreign scientists or what the U.S. government should be doing to train more domestic students. Although it's risky to venture into territory not supported by data, many have been unable to resist such excursions.

For example, 1996 chemistry Nobelist Richard Smalley believes that “citizenship matters” in trying to project whether the U.S. will retain its leadership in global science. And he's troubled that “there are a hell of a lot more Chinese and Asians going into science and engineering than Americans.”

The Rice University professor likes to provoke audiences with extrapolations of the future scientific workforce based on current levels of Ph.D. production in the United States and Asia (see graph at left). His take-home message: “By 2010, 90% of all Ph.D. physical scientists and engineers in the world will be Asian, and half of them will be living in Asia.” In interviews, however, Smalley is quick to point out that these projections rest on the improbable assumption that all the factors affecting the U.S. scientific workforce over the past 15 years—from the end of the Cold War and the Tiananmen Square massacre to a high-tech economic boom-bust cycle and heightened concerns about terrorism—will continue their effects for the next decade.

Even with those caveats, Smalley's message so impressed a chair of a task force of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that the same forecast popped up this spring in PCAST's draft report on the U.S. scientific workforce. Robert Herbolt, former chief operating officer at Microsoft, stretched Smalley's speculative calculation even further by referring to a world of Ph.D. scientists that would soon be “90% … Asian, living in Asia.” Then he turned the prediction into a rallying cry for his domestic audience: “What can we do about this shift of talent to other countries? What can we do to stem the tide?”

That rhetoric was a bit much for other PCAST members, however. “People don't respond to stemming tides,” counseled Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I think we need to send a more positive message about strengthening the domestic workforce and training better teachers.” After a long discussion, PCAST asked the task force to take a second crack at the topic.

For all his concern about the nationality of future U.S. scientists, Smalley believes that most research universities will continue to recruit and welcome large numbers of international students and foreign-born faculty members, because such openness is one of the factors that makes the U.S. scientific enterprise so potent. Recalling how his lab went from one or two foreign students in the 1980s to more than a dozen today, Smalley says, “I want the best students, and I've gotten pretty relaxed about where they come from. The world is changing, but we'll cope with it somehow.”

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