Volume 91 Issue 27 | p. 8
Issue Date: July 8, 2013

Cover Stories

Valuable Imports Or Job Competition?

Unemployment among U.S. scientists raises new doubts about the need for more foreign researchers
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: immigration, visa, legislation, employment
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

The current immigration debate in Congress goes far beyond border protection. Bills under consideration in both the Senate and House of Representatives could overhaul the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) immigration system.

The Senate bill (S. 744) would almost double the number of skilled temporary workers allowed to come into the country as part of comprehensive immigration reform. It would also base the green card system more on merit, including education and employment.

A more focused bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 1227) is called the Staple Act, for its goal of stapling a green card—which confers permanent residency status—to the doctoral degree of foreign students who graduate from a U.S. university and have a job offer.

Computer companies, which dominate demand for temporary workers, have been lobbying hard for the changes because they say they cannot find enough STEM workers in the U.S. The notion that the U.S. is not training enough of these people domestically has become conventional wisdom in science policy reports and in education reform programs.

But some economists studying the problem say that, contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that the U.S. needs more STEM workers. Wages are flat in many of these disciplines, and the low cost of labor indicates an oversupply, not an undersupply, these contrarians argue. Plus, unemployment is a problem. For example, unemployment among American Chemical Society members was at 4.2% in 2012, the second-highest rate in the past decade, according to surveys by ACS, which publishes C&EN. That also points to an oversupply.

This view is kindling a new debate over whether the country really needs more STEM workers.

It’s hard to predict the outcome of that policy argument and its impact on the hundreds of thousands of foreign students and postdocs in the U.S. Pending legislation would definitely make it easier for foreign students to stay once they get their degrees, whether they hold temporary visas or more permanent green cards. But, as C&EN has learned by talking to foreign scientists around the country, visas and green cards come with limits and uncertainties that make it difficult to find a job.

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