Losing Science

A new report claims the U.S. is losing its global preeminence in the sciences.

| Fri May 7, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

A National Science Foundation report says the number of Americans entering the sciences and technical fields is on the slide. Because of tighter visa restrictions following Sept. 11 and a growing perception that the U.S. is hostile to foreigners, the stock of science talent from abroad is dwindling too. Combine the two trends and it's clear that the U.S. risks losing its place as a global leader in the sciences.

The report, titled, "An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force," said that while the United States leads the world in producing and exporting high-technology products and is among the top spenders on funding for research and development, there is a real threat that it will lose the top spot.

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The board is a 24-member federal advisory panel established by Congress. It oversees The National Science Foundation, which released the report Tuesday as a companion to "Science and Engineering Indicators 2004," a detailed analysis of science trends it publishes every two years.

National Science Board Chairman Warren Washington said:

"For many years we have benefited from minimal competition in the global science and engineering labor market, but attractive and competitive alternatives are now expanding around the world."

Robert C. Richardson a Nobel laureate in physics and a member of the panel said, "I fear irreversible damage can be done," adding that he found the trends "quite disturbing."

Among other things, the study looked at the number 18-to-24-year-olds who earn natural science and engineering degrees in their respective countries. The United States ranks 17th of 19 nations surveyed, behind Taiwan and South Korea, Ireland and Italy. In 1975, it was third.

Because of this declining interest among young Americans in science careers, the U.S. has in recent years come to rely more and more on immigrant talent. In 2000, 38 percent of America’s scientists and engineers with doctorates were foreign born.

But according to the report, America risks losing foreign scientists by dint of tightened immigration restrictions since Sept. 11 and a perception that foreigners are unwelcome in the U.S.. The report also noted that terror attacks and more countries with their own programs keep scientists away from the U.S.

Applications from international graduate students for this fall are down 32 percent compared with a year ago. Meanwhile, the number of jobs requiring scientific skills increases steadily by 5 percent each year.

The importance of having a vibrant science and engineering force cannot be overstated. Dr. Richardson commented: "I don't think America is getting fat and lazy." But he added that if the nation failed to make the right investments soon, "we're going to be left behind in a cloud of dust."

Larry Summers, President of Harvard, told Time in a Q &A that post 9/11 screening rules are driving foreign students to study in other countries:

"Our applications from China to our graduate schools are down by more than a third, and that obviously has to affect the quality of the students we can bring to this country. That in turn affects American technology and entrepreneurship ... We are compromising our long-run security by reducing this kind of connection with foreign students."

More than 90 percent of graduate schools reported their foreign applications for this fall declined, according to a survey of 113 universities last month by the Council of Graduate Schools.

Officials from several schools and the Department of Homeland Security discussed foreign student matters last week at a gathering in San Diego. And representatives from a handful of prominent schools, including the presidents of Yale and Princeton, met in New York recently to explore ways to use the influence of their trustees to help make their case. Some schools are even extending application deadlines so they don't lose students still negotiating U.S. bureaucracy.

Some educators note more severe consequences for the decline in foreign enrollment. For one, foreign students often pay higher tuition, and soak up little financial aid because they must demonstrate financial self-reliance to get a visa. More than 75 percent of their funding comes from outside the country, according to the Institute of International Education.

But also, as Douglas Kincaid, Vice Provost for International studies at Florida International University in Miami, where foreign enrollment is down 10 percent, says, welcoming in students is "one of America's most effective forms of diplomacy. We're educating people who will be in influential positions in science and industry and government around the world."

The Financial Times comments:

"The attractiveness of the US as a place of study has brought great financial benefits to the country. One is the Dollars 13bn (Pounds 7bn) a year pumped into the economy. Another is the financial boost for individual institutions that can charge foreigners higher fees.

Other countries will gladly capitalise on any difficulties the US faces in attracting foreign applicants. Many UK universities want to recruit more students from outside the European Union to balance the losses they incur teaching EU students whose tuition fees are capped by the government. English-speaking Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and India are also expanding their international education activities.

Yet if the US is seen as unwelcoming to foreign students, the losses will not only be financial. American universities have benefited by being able to attract the best minds from around the world, raising the quality of their research in science, technology and engineering."

So what’s to be done? The Economist suggests it is purely a matter of devising a more streamline system for giving out visas. And that often times, glitches and delays that may discourage students from studying in the U.S. may have very little to do with concerns about terrorism:

"Despite all the hassle, of course, America remains the top place in the world to do scientific research, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Nevertheless, the country might help its chances of remaining top dog if it applied some of its technical know-how to the task of processing visas more efficiently."

Dr. Washington, chairman of the panel, said the U.S. needs to work harder at developing its own scientific talent. So perhaps Kerry is on the right track when he pledged Thursday to channel $30 billion over 10 years to improve teacher pay and in particular, to include $5,000 bonuses for those who teach math and science.

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