Global Talent Flow is Critical for U.S. Scientific Innovation

February 03, 2010

By Rachel Banks

Last month, the Department of Energy announced that 69 scientists from across the country will receive up to $85 million in funding under the American Recovery and ReInvestment Act over the next five years in the form of research grants as part of the Department’s Early Career Research Program. The program is designed to stimulate scientific innovation by providing support to exceptional researchers during the early stages of their careers, when most groundbreaking work occurs.

The award recipients are based either at leading U.S. research universities or at one of the DOE-funded national laboratories, and they represent the best and brightest in their fields, fields ranging from basic energy sciences and biological and environmental research to high energy and nuclear physics. According to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, “This investment reflects the Administration’s strong commitment to creating jobs and new industries through scientific innovation.”

What the announcement neglected to mention is that at least one third of the award recipients are foreign-born, having first come to the United States to study or conduct research either as a graduate student or as a post doctoral fellow. China, Germany, Russia, South Korea, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, and Canada are just some of the countries they hail from.

When addressing how the United States can best support scientific innovation, visa and immigration reform must be part of the discussion. According to recent National Science Foundation figures, 33 Percent of doctoral recipients at U.S. universities are foreign-born. While every effort should be made to encourage more Americans (especially women and minorities) to pursue these career tracks, we must also recognize the important contributions made by international students and scholars to our scientific leadership.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators has long recognized the importance of international education and exchange in bolstering not only America’s global understanding and long-term security, but also our scientific innovation and economic competitiveness. Our latest policy paper, A Visa and Immigration Policy for the Brain-Circulation Era, identifies key recommendations for reforming current visa and immigration policies in ways that support U.S. innovation and economic competitiveness.

Global collaboration by U.S. and foreign scientists is increasingly the norm, not the exception, especially in areas such as climate change and space exploration. Positive visa and immigration reform will ensure that foreign scientists have the ability to travel to the United States and to successfully contribute their talents, much like the foreign-born recipients of this Energy Department funding are doing and will continue to do.

As Energy Secretary Chu, whose own parents first arrived in the United States as foreign students, has said, the Administration is committed to investing in scientific innovation. But to be truly committed, we need to invest more than just funds. We need policies that support the realities of 21st century scientific collaboration, where bright ideas are no longer the dominion of one nation, but of the world.


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