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Is the US still determined to entice and retain global scientific talent?

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
June 29, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 25


Attracting the best talent to work on scientific endeavors is an ambitious but necessary goal if we are to solve the challenges the world faces.

Nations around the globe compete to become the go-to destination for the brightest scientific minds, but the US has, for many decades, held the top spot. Other countries bemoan the brain drain that has sucked a portion of their top talent into the US, but despite implementing policies and offering incentives, most have failed to overcome the US’s pull. This influx of scientific capacity has without a doubt contributed to the leadership that the nation enjoys today.

It would be nice to be able to say in the future that the US remained determined to attract and retain world-class talent. But will that be true? New Trump administration policies to limit the movement of people suggest that the country may no longer have a thirst for international expertise or that it is deprioritizing it, shifting its focus to nurturing and developing home-grown talent.

These policies include a move, announced on June 22, to suspend entry into the US of foreign nationals with a variety of visas, including H-1B visas and others for highly skilled workers (see page 12). The administration’s stated rationale is that such entrants present “a risk to the U.S. labor market following the coronavirus outbreak.” The new ban is in place until the end of the year, but with embassies closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, no visas would have been processed anyway. Many scientists were already stranded in various locations around the world as the result of travel bans (see page 30), and it is unclear how relevant this new ban is going to be in the short and medium terms.

In the long term, the administration says it is working to revamp the H-1B visa process to eliminate the lottery system and prioritize workers who are offered the highest wage. There’s probably good logic in that, but regardless of the process, demand for H-1B visas by companies far outstrips supply, currently capped at 85,000 annually. (The total number of H-1B holders admitted to the US is higher because academic institutions are exempt from that limit.) This demand contradicts the White House’s proclamation that admission of workers with H-1B and other temporary visas “poses a risk of displacing and disadvantaging United States workers during the current recovery.”

In recent weeks, the administration has also taken action to limit issuance of visas for Chinese students and researchers associated with China’s “military-civil fusion strategy.” The rationale for this ban, which is estimated to affect 3,000 Chinese nationals, is that these individuals pose a security threat and are potential “nontraditional collectors of intellectual property.” IP theft is a serious crime, and corporations and universities should take every precaution. Time and effort would be better spent ensuring these organizations have relevant security protocols in place such as vetting incoming researchers, establishing requirements for appropriate clearance, and—in extreme cases—mandating the work is done by US nationals. Further, I wonder how much truly sensitive research that would constitute a risk to national security if leaked or outsourced to commercial firms or US universities.

I lament the US’s decision to limit the uptake of international talent. Over decades these scientists have contributed to the country’s scientific and technical leadership, and removing this crucial component of its innovation and research capability will no doubt have a negative effect.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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