National Academies Chief: The U.S. Must End Reliance on Foreign Scientists

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - DECEMBER 03: Geophysicist Marcia McNutt attends the 2018 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center on December 3, 2017 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images)
Jesse Grant/Getty Images

U.S. science managers must quit their reliance on foreign graduates, the head of the National Academies of Sciences said at an event to celebrate 70 years of discoveries by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“We have prospered because of it. But guess what? That’s not gonna happen anymore,” warned Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist who is the president of the National Academy of Sciences. She said February 6: 

[Foreign scientists] have great opportunities back in their own countries now because everyone’s copying us. There are great opportunities in China, growing opportunities everywhere else. We can’t count on that [importation policy] to make us great anymore.

We’re going to have to educate our own.

National Science Foundation

However, the managers of the science community show little desire to change the current cheap-labor policy. That policy provides universities and laboratory chiefs with a flood of cheap “student” workers who lack workplace rights or decent salaries.

“Science and technology in this country is dependent on immigration,” said Neal Lane, who ran the federal NSF from 1993 to 1998. “It really is what has made this country a leader in science and technology and innovation in the world.

Breitbart News raised the issue at a meeting to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NSF. The NSF provides annually roughly $8 billion for civilian science outside the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and NASA.

Breitbart News’s question was immediately dismissed by Rita Colwell, who ran the NSF from 1998 to 2004. “We’ve been there before — it was known as the Cold War … [when U.S. scientists] interacted with Russian physicists and scientists, so we’ve been there.”

When reminded the question was about the impact on American graduates and scientists, she responded, “That’s a different, separate question. I’ll let someone else [answer].”

The room in Alexandria, Virginia, was filled with the university managers who direct and manage the nation’s basic science projects — and who overwhelmingly oppose the reelection of President Donald Trump and his “Hire American” policy and his nationalist outlook.

Their budgets are built on government funding — and on the supply of cheap laboratory labor from China and India. The revenues are also boosted by the many foreign graduates who must get enrolled in U.S. universities so they can get the Optional Practical Training (OPT) work permits to work in U.S. jobs.

The flow of foreign graduates provides at least $30 billion of revenue each year to the universities — and it creates a conflict of interest with the universities’ taxpayer-funded mission of training Americans for good jobs. In 2018, U.S. universities helped 521,000 foreign students and graduates get work permits for the jobs sought by indebted Americans graduates of those universities. 

“I think I understand the question, [and] that’s a legitimate question what you’re trying to get at,” said Walter Massey, who ran the NSF from 1991 to 1993. He said:

I don’t think it is an either/or.

I think we should be doing both. I think they’re both healthy; they both contribute to the growth of American science and to the American economy. And as the economy grows, we should have more resources to put into opportunities for American students. I think I understand the question, [and] its’ a legitimate question what you’re trying to get at.

The huge supply of foreign scientists reduces the incentive for the science sector to recruit, train, and pay American science workers at decent rates. For example, a January 2020 study by the National Science Board, titled “The State of U.S. Science and Engineering,” reported that half of the science and engineering workforce is paid less than $85,390 after many years of expensive study:

[Science and engineering] employment in the United States—made up of occupations like software developers, computer system analysts, chemists, mathematicians, economists, psychologists, and engineers—has grown more rapidly than the workforce overall and now represents 5% (about 7 million) of all U.S. jobs. In 2017, the median [the mid-point number] annual salary in S&E occupations (across workers at all education levels) was $85,390.

But the government is not welcoming enough to foreign students, claimed Richard Atkinson, who ran the NSF from 1977 to 1980. “Now we have an immigration policy that literally forces these students out. We need that intellectual talent in our scientific community,” he said, adding:

Now I don’t want to say that we should absorb all of these students. They should go back to their country to a certain extent, but there’s a lot of talent out there that we should continue to attract. And I think the comment that was made earlier about the [Cold] war years, is that we really depended on intellectual talent from abroad, and I think that it’s been wonderful for us. And you can make arguments against it, but I think we’re better off attracting the very best students. And then, keeping a good number of them here in the country.

The impact of imported foreign labor on Americans was recognized by Lane:

My son is an electrical engineer, and engineering salaries we think are not — in my family — at the level that makes sense in terms of the investment they make in their education and so forth.

I’ve talked to people in industry about this, and I said, “What about the salary problem?” and the answer is — [when] we talk in connection with H-1B visas, for example, and bringing in more engineers or students interested in engineering — [a business executive] said, “Engineering is a commodity. We can go anyplace in the world” — well, not any place — “We can go elsewhere in the world and find the engineers we need as a company.”

Inside the United States, companies and universities employ roughly 1.5 million foreign contract workers — who are not immigrants — via the H-1B, OPT, and other visa programs. This large contingent workforce drives down salaries and opportunities for Americans.

In fact, this outsourcing business is so vast that it has created its own hidden economy where foreign managers and workers trade labor in exchange for green cards and other kickbacks. This informal, non-cash economy is creating huge financial incentives to discriminate against American scientists, engineers, and other professionals.

The inflow of foreign graduates is a small part of the national immigration policy, which has changed the demographic composition of the United States since 1970. In turn, the changing population has created a new political demand for more enforced “diversity” and also for more government-mandated equality. The conflicting demands make the task of educating children more complex and contentious.

“I go to fabulous universities like Riverside, Irvine, Arizona State, and I ask the people there [who] do great jobs at finding students of diverse backgrounds and bringing them into the universities,” said McNutt. She continued:

I say, “How well are they prepared for university education?” And every one of those presidents and provosts say, “Oh, well, we’ve got to spend an entire summer or the first full quarter trying to do remedial education.” And I’ll tell you, that is the absolute worst way, the most expensive use of our universities, to make up for what those students didn’t get as in their K-12 education.

The visa workers in the outsourcing economy have also flooded the market for Americans seeking jobs in non-profit hospitals, universities, and government laboratories. Those centers employ roughly 100,000 visa workers, not counting OPTs and laboratory post-docs.

In some universities, “jobs are drying up,” said Atkinson. He blamed the job shortages on cuts in government funding but not the universities’ employment of foreign workers.

Lane recognized that ordinary political demands are threatening the science sector’s reliance on migrants:

Science and technology in this country is dependent on immigration. It really is what has made this country a leader in science and technology and innovation in the world.

That’s under threat, right now, not for any negative reason, and elsewhere in the world, but just because we’re failing to keep up in terms of setting the proper priorities for science and technology that other countries, China in particular, have established.  

So, you know, just picking picking China, for example, we want to compete with China in global markets. We need to cooperate with China on research, and that includes being open to students coming here to study from China and other parts of the world, and scientific exchanges between the two countries

Chinese “students” are widely used as lab workers and scientists in the laboratories run by the university managers.

Subra Suresh, who ran the NSF from 2010 to 2013, spoke up to defend the use of foreign workers:

I think there is no substitute for cultivating domestic talent. But there are so many areas in which we’ve been learning from the best and the brightest who come from all over the world, who become Americans who serve the country. And I was one of them, as is the nominee to be the next director of NSF.

He argued that the foreign scientists and workers bring the full value of their training to the United States — even though he left the United States to become the president of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University in 2018. He continued:

Let’s look at the argument. Studies show that if a child is born today in the U.S., it costs the parents approximately half a million dollars to raise their child from birth to age 22, which is through college, on average,

[The U.S. has] 100,000 people coming with advanced degrees who are at the top of the class, already have had their half a million dollars paid by some other taxpayer. So you multiply 100,000 by 50, half a million dollars a pop. It’s 50 billion US dollars a year.  That’s seven times the annual budget of the National Science Foundation. For the last 50 years, the rest of the world is subsidizing our innovation and subsidizing our innovation ecosystem to the tune of seven times the annual budget of NSF.

But those incoming scientists also bump Americans out of research jobs, so reducing the return on Americans’ expensive educations. The inflow also drops wages and salaries, so deterring other Americans from taking science jobs. 

Many of the foreign scientists also leave the United States, usually to bring U.S. science and technology to companies in their home countries. The foreign students also work with foreign governments in India, and especially in China, which is spending billions of dollars to extract technologies from U.S.-based scientists. 

China’s science policy has been fantastically successful. For example, the Huawei phone company builds cellphones with better cameras than any U.S. company and is selling its 5G telecommunications technology around the world before the U.S. has built its own 5G networks.

The international vs. national tension within the science establishment was showcased by President Donald Trump’s science director.

At the NSF event, he championed international solidarity among scientists, lamented China’s aggressively self-serving policies, and largely ignored Trump’s emphasis on hiring Americans.

“We want [foreign] people to come in … have a place where they can really come together and think together and dream and have bold ideas,” said Kelvin Droegemeier of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He urged the university managers and scientists to champion the Western vision of science as a collaborative, mutually beneficial enterprise:

So whether you’re from Beijing, China, or you’re from Norman, Oklahoma, wherever you’re from, we want everybody to play by the [Western] rules because when you do that, science wins. And we all could agree, the thing again that unites us is those values. So when we speak to the issue of those values, and people say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re not about stigmatizing any people, stigmatizing a person due to their color, their political belief, or whatever. None of that matters because we’re united in our quest to understand nature, and to solve the mysteries of what this incredible creation has put around us, and it’s such an incredibly uniting force.

[If] we do that, we can be a beacon to the world. And that is really I think a great high calling that we have is not just to solve some challenge of research security [with China] — very, very important though it may be — but is to take the values that we as researchers hold dear, and take those and promote those to everybody around the world and then that can spread almost like a fire, so that’ll be very, very exciting.

But he also acknowledged China’s rival, hostile, and self-serving values:

So, even though we’re challenged by nations that don’t share our values, we can actually promote our values to help other folks understand how important they are. And I know of no place other than research where those values are absolutely fundamental to the conduct of the work that we do.

India, too, has its rival values, as it seeks to create a “bridge” of Indian workers into the U.S. and European economies that can return wealth back to India.

“The flow of talent is part of our economic cooperation,” India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said in December 2019:

It is in a sense almost strategic bridge between us. So, I cannot overstate the importance of the flow of talent for Indo-American ties. That was a point I make that look, this is important for you, it is important for us. It’s important for the relationship. So let’s work together to make sure this stays sort of open and vibrant and active.

On December 18, 2019, Trump announced his intention to nominate India-born U.S. citizen Sethuraman Panchanathan to serve as NSF director. Trump’s nominee has not been confirmed by the Senate.



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