students and scholars leave the United States, there is the risk that they will work in businesses that compete with those in the United States or use their knowledge in ways inimical to US security. A related but different risk is that international tensions or changes in world conditions will greatly reduce the inflow of overseas talent and diminish our educational and research leadership.

Our knowledge about the flow of international S&E students and scholars to the United States, although limited,2 allows us to predict with some certainty that in the extreme case a complete cutoff of the flow would create major problems for the US scientific and technologic enterprise. The impact would be felt rapidly by university graduate programs and by researchers who depend on graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. There would be a slower cumulative effect on hiring in industrial, government, and academic sectors.

It is harder to predict how modest changes would affect the scientific workforce, let alone the national well-being, or how larger changes would affect long-term outcomes. Universities might respond by placing more emphasis on the education and mentoring of domestic students. The country might, for example, respond to a drop in the number of international graduate students working as research assistants in laboratories by raising the incentives for US students to take such jobs, by recruiting more international postdoctoral scholars or immigrant scientists and engineers, or eventually by reducing the reliance of research laboratories on graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. Another possible response to increased wages would be to invest in labor-saving research technologies, such as high-throughput molecular biology equipment. With respect to industry, if the United States attracted fewer of the world’s most talented scientists and engineers, US firms might shift more R&D activities overseas, maintaining their competitive edge through increased offshoring.


One reason for the uncertainties mentioned above is that the country lacks adequate data for measuring the international flow and career paths of foreign-trained S&E students and postdoctoral scholars (see Box 4-1).


See Grant Black and Paula Stephan. 2005. “The importance of foreign PhD students to US science.” In: Science and the University, eds. R. Ehrenberg and P. Stephan. Madison, WI: Universty of Wisconsin Press (forthcoming); Jeffrey Mervis. 2004. “Many origins, one destination.” Science 304:1277. This special section reviews experiences of foreign born scientists and engineers working in the United States. Mervis writes, “For all its importance, the relationship between the domestic and foreign born scientific workforce remains an understudied topic.”

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