Immigration: The Great Race for Brains

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WASHINGTON--Just as Arizona's new restrictive immigration law has reignited the intermittent national debate about immigration policy, Princeton University Press has published The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, by Kauffman Foundation senior fellow Ben Wildavsky, former education editor at U.S. News and World Report.

Undocumented workers in Arizona will now be detained, imprisoned, and deported.

Similarly, if less publicly, it has been true for a long time that when foreign students receive their graduate degrees from elite American universities, far too many are also shown the door and sent back whence they came. The Great Brain Race shows how this works to America's disadvantage.

Wildavsky meticulously demonstrates how the competition for academic talent has gone global, with universities all over the world chasing the brightest students. Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and Cambridge are now competing with the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Indian Institutes of Technology, and even the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, among others.

America can attract the best global minds as students, but to keep them here and reap the benefits of our investment in their education and productivity, we need to reform our immigration law. It can be difficult for a bright person overseas to get a U.S. visa, even after being accepted by a first-rank university and given a scholarship. Many more obstacles need to be overcome for newly-graduated women and men who want to stay here.

While at U.S. News, Wildavsky oversaw the magazine's closely watched, if controversial, annual U.S. college and university rankings, and his new book places American higher education in its larger international context. The Great Brain Race shows "the importance of the free-flow of ideas and people to universities and businesses," as Wildavsky told me in a telephone conversation this week.

Wildavsky visited universities all over the world in the course of his research, and reports on the fierce competition among them for the best students. He writes that "National borders are simply less relevant than they once were. Student and faculty mobility has exploded. Cross-national research collaboration is more common than ever."

As has Harvard University scholar Amar Bhidé, author of The Venturesome Economy, Wildavsky concludes that the "research discoveries in other nations provide fodder for American innovators" and that the new global brain race is to be welcomed, not feared.

The international competition for the brightest minds illuminates a major problem with our immigration system: it is sometimes extraordinarily difficult for people we want to attract to work here to get visas. Whether it is a farmer who wants fruit pickers, an engineering firm that wants an engineer, or students who have graduated from U.S. universities with specialized skills, it often takes years to secure the right visa.

By making it difficult for these brilliant students to stay in America, Congress is dissipating the value America receives from taxpayers' investments in research. For, the fact is that a significant fraction of graduate students in the United States are assisted financially with funds that come from the federal government, especially in science, technology, and engineering.

In 2007, the most recent data available, the federal government spent more than $55 billion on science and engineering research at American universities and research institutions. This funding helps finance PhD programs, which are heavily populated with foreign students.

Almost $29 billion of this research spending is health related. Other funders include the Defense Department, $6.5 billion, and the Department of Energy, $6 billion.

Our universities rely on graduate students for research assistance and technical expertise. Most research does not require security clearances, and little if any research is restricted to American students.

American universities are among the world's leading research institutions, attracting the top minds, not only those from America but also from many other countries. National Science Foundation data show that 149,233 foreign graduate students studied science and engineering in American universities in 2007, up from the previous peak of 147,464 in 2003. As Wildavsky reports, other countries are trying to catch up.

The number and percentage of PhDs in science and engineering awarded to Americans and permanent residents have declined dramatically over the past decade. Fewer Americans, and more foreigners, are being awarded PhDs in scientific and engineering fields, even as the total number of new doctorates has increased.

In computer science, and engineering, more than half of PhDs are awarded to foreigners. In 1998, 59% of PhDs in physics were awarded to Americans. In 2008, the latest data available, it had fallen to 46%. In 1998, 57% of PhDs in computer sciences went to Americans - in 2008, this had declined to 36%. In 1998, 66% of chemistry PhDs went to Americans, compared to 55% in 2008.

America attracts the cream of international students, trains them at great expense to American taxpayers, and then asks many of them them to leave. The Great Brain Race is a timely wake-up call, reminding us that we need to change our immigration system before it is too late.


Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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