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Beware of Attacks on Science

Published July 23, 2020

By Nicholas Dirks

Beware of Attacks on Science

We saw quite a battle over the last few of weeks as universities, colleges, and many groups with strong interests in higher education successfully fought off an administration attempt to deny visas to many thousands of international students.

The issue was whether international students could study in this country if all of their courses would be on line, due to the continuing public health threat of COVID-19.

Opponents of the visa rule focused on economic impact, threats to health and safety, and the disruption of students’ lives. At the New York Academy of Sciences, we saw the Administration’s plan in another light, too. We believe the Trump administration’s ongoing antipathy to immigration, immigrants, and students from other countries is also an attack on science, for it undermines a critical source of scientific talent for our universities and our innovation economy.

Just as our colleges and universities began to roll out their plans for safe instruction this fall, including a great deal of remote learning, the Trump administration announced its plan. Harvard and MIT immediately filed suit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Dozens of universities threw their support behind the litigation, and the attorneys general of about 20 states also challenged ICE in court. Students and universities claimed victory when the administration backed down on July 14. But this is not the end of our worries going forward.

At a time when our universities are under severe financial threat because of the economic impact of the pandemic, the move by the administration would have meant the loss of $41 billion dollars of revenue.

Equally important, however, is to remember that the million strong international students also contribute to our nation’s preeminence in science and engineering. They play a critical role in cutting edge research in fields ranging from artificial intelligence to the study of infectious diseases – including the search for treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. And many of these students stay on in the U.S., becoming leading researchers, scientists, and entrepreneurs. We must be on guard to prevent the administration from placing any new barriers before these international students.

At my own university, UC Berkeley, a gene editing lab was converted to become a testing center for COVID-19 early in the pandemic. Without our talented graduate student and postdocs, many of whom come from abroad, this would not have been possible. This is just one of thousands of examples. In 2017, temporary visa holders earned 34% of the doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering in the US.

The new PhDs tend to stay. Between 2003 and 2017, 64-71% of science and engineering doctoral recipients with temporary visas stayed in the U.S. for five years after obtaining their degrees. And 30% of our workforce in science and engineering fields is foreign born, according to the 2017 government data. In the fast developing field of artificial intelligence, a report by the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service states it would significantly damage U.S. scientific and economic progress if foreign-born students and workers in AI related fields were to stop coming to this country.

Data compiled by the American Immigration Council show that eight of the companies currently working to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 have sponsored 3,310 scientists through the H-1B visa program. Most of these scientists studied in U.S. universities.

All of us benefit from the flow of talent, whether international students stay in the U.S. and contribute to the growth and development of scientific knowledge here, or return to their homes, providing those contributions to their respective nations. Even from other countries, many of those U.S.-trained scientists maintain important collaborations with counterparts the United States.

Our universities are the greatest repositories of scientific knowledge in the world. This is in part because they are also magnets for international talent. As we rely on science to control the virus that has brought the world to its knees, we must not forget how much the Administration’s actions threatened not just our health, but the foundations of science on which our future must in large measure depend.