Obama advised: science must flow

The National Research Council has advised the incoming Obama administration to streamline our export and visa controls on the flow of science and scientists in and out of the US.

“Our visa controls have made it more difficult or less attractive for talented foreign professionals to come and learn what is great about this country, or to stay and help grow the American economy,” the report reads.

“Our export controls retard both the U.S. and its allies from sharing access to military technology, and handicap American business from competing globally,” it adds.

All too true. I once had a foreign graduate student who couldn’t go to conference in Canada to present her work, because her immigration status prevented trips out of the US for any reason, even professional reasons. Another foreign graduate student at my institution had to periodically abandon his laboratory work and drive to Canada, just to pacify some arcane INS rule mandating he leave the US temporarily to renew his visa to return to the US, or some such idiocy. It is a common occurrence for US university graduate programs to admit foreign graduate students – bright, young professionals seeking education in our great country – and have their travel to the US delayed for “security” reasons, resulting in delays granting student visas. The same thing often happens upon hiring a foreign national to a faculty position. Visa roadblocks can come without reason or warning, delaying hires and resulting in canceled classes, wasted university resources, and often the loss of frustrated but highly qualified experts who decide to simply give up on Fortress America and go somewhere else… usually the EU or Canada.

The US deals poorly with the flow of expertise across our borders. Scientists, engineers and scholars coming to the US are commonly delayed for no apparent reason… and sometimes for loathsome reasons such as ethnic or racial profiling. Yes, there are Saudis who fly planes into buildings…. but those Saudis are usually not professors of aerospace engineering at a major university. This isn’t elitism in the pejorative sense, it’s elitism in the functional sense that education and violent criminality are diametrically opposing traits. Outside of a James Bond movie or a DC comic book, international terrorists and organized crime figures end up with those careers because of a lack of education and opportunity. Highly trained experts in technical fields don’t need to blow things up to get what they want… they simply purchase what they want with the rewards that come with professional success.

Our national science and research policy should make it easier for the best and brightest foreign nationals – in any professional field – to come to America and join our endeavors. Student visas should be examined to make sure no devious moles get through, of course… but that doesn’t imply justification for clumsy, asinine regulations that stifle the free flow of ideas and intellectual capital. Having smart people come to the US and learn how to be scientists and engineers is a good thing… because it results in either of two desirable outcomes: 1) young pro-US professionals go back to their home countries to be successful and spread an American-trained perspective, or 2) we assimilate more smart, talented people into our society. There really isn’t a downside, here.

The problem is that current US policy toward foreign scholars and experts appears to be predicated on paranoia, and not on optimizing our access to brainpower. The US is lagging badly behind the rest of the industrialized world in numbers of scientists and technical professionals graduating from domestic university programs. A big part of that problem derives from a failed US K-12 education system that emphasizes testing over learning and is terrified of teaching core science principles such as evolution. Another factor keeping our numbers of science graduates down is how difficult we make it for foreign nationals to come here and fill the void.

I don’t care if the next generation of high-temperature superconductors is invented by a guy from Ohio or a lady from Malaysia, as long as the invention happens. Also I’d prefer the invention happen here in the US, where our economy can directly benefit first. It’s not that I wish ill upon competitor nations, or that I’m a jingoist, it’s just that I live in the US and thus naturally tend to support the home team, all else being equal. I assume people in our competitor nations feel the same way… they seem to, based on how happily many of them accept graduate students and young faculty members whom we reject because of “security” concerns. The only real “security” concern here is how much brainpower we’re giving the bum’s rush.


~ by Planetologist on January 9, 2009.

2 Responses to “Obama advised: science must flow”

  1. I don’t know that security issues are what drives the general public’s perception of foreign professionals working in the US. I think it’s either fear of job loss or fear of reduced salaries due to increased supply of professionals. I think the government’s response is caused by a combination of misaddressing security issues and pandering to the public perception.

  2. Interesting perspective I’m sure not everyone shares….

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