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National Research Council (US) Committee on Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States. Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2005.

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Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States.

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A knowledge-based society depends on the quality of its human resources, especially the scientists and engineers who discover and develop applications for knowledge. The education and training of scientists and engineers constitute one of the most vital tasks of a knowledge-based society. The quality of students and researchers determines a nation's innovative capacity and is the basis of economic competitiveness and national security.1


Since World War II, the numbers of international students in US institutions of higher education have grown, although there have been dips and surges related to economic cycles, changes in immigration policy, and international political restructuring. In 1952, the student nonimmigrant F and J visa classes were established. Two years later, 34,232 international students were studying in the United States (1.4 percent of the total higher-education enrollment). A half-century later that figure reached 547,867 (3.9 percent of enrollment).2 Among science and engineering (S&E) graduate students, the percentage rose from 20 percent in 1982 to 35 percent in 2002, and it is over 50 percent in some fields of engineering.3 Recent estimates indicate that over half the postdoctoral scholars in the United States are on temporary visas, and almost half those scholars had obtained their doctorates outside the United States.4 Thus, about one-fourth of US postdoctoral scholars have been trained in overseas universities.

Talented international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are drawn to the United States because of the high quality of our research universities, the availability of stipends and research funding, the opportunities for employment after schooling, and an “open-door” immigration policy that allows foreigners to obtain nonimmigrant visas for study and in many cases to convert their student status to longer-term residence once their studies are completed. Through the years, international scientists and engineers have made substantial and often disproportionate contributions in high-technology firms, universities, national laboratories, and other sectors throughout society.5Chapter 1 of this report presents data on graduate enrollments, postdoctoral appointments, entrance examinations, stay rates, stipends, and funding mechanisms that illustrate the often-complex interplay between student choices, educational opportunities, politics, and government policies.


Several events in the last few years, some of them shocking, have suggested that the nation's S&E enterprise might be weakened by declining enrollments and that such declines could occur rapidly. At first glance, for example, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, appeared to have disrupted at least parts of the international student flows on which theUnited States depends.

The awareness that at least a few of those responsible for the actions of 9-11 had enrolled as students in US institutions caused additional concern in many quarters of government and academe, generating calls for tighter controls on international student exchanges and proposals to restrict access of students from particular regions to specific kinds of research. The heightening of security consciousness, in turn, created a perception that the United States was not “a welcoming place” and raised a broad set of security issues that have long been debated in this country. Those issues were especially troublesome during the Cold War, when scrutiny of scientists and engineers doing research in “sensitive” fields, such as nuclear physics, prompted passionate debates about the proper balance between national security and the pen communication on which scientific research depends.6 The effects of visa and immigration policies on the global movement and work of scientists are the subject of Chapter 2.


The impact on international student interest in US graduate and postdoctoral programs caused by 9-11 and other recent events is still being debated. Recent enrollment figures do not indicate a lasting effect of those short-term disruptive events, and they coincide with much broader changes that began to appear long before 9-11. The changes reflect the strong desire of other nations to strengthen their own educational and research capacity in S&E, the effects of which can already be seen. For example, the US share of international students decreased from 36.7 percent of the world's total higher-education enrollment in 1970 to 30.2 percent in 1995.7 The reasons for the shift are varied and include internal and external factors that are discussed in detail in Chapter 3. If this trend persists, the United States will be in a different, more complex world, where knowledge and human resources are shared much more widely with other countries.


The issue for the United States, as for other nations, is that a knowledge-driven economy is more productive if it has access to the best talent regardless of national origin. Overdependence on international students may, however, leave the United States vulnerable to geopolitical and other shocks that interrupt international mobility. It is neither possible nor desirable to restrict US S&E positions to US citizens; this would reduce industries' and universities' access to much of the world's talent and remove a substantial element of diversity from our society. As discussed in Chapter 4, one way to explore the importance of international scientists and engineers is to imagine the ramifications of a gradual or drastic decrease in their numbers. A global system for tracking international flows of graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and S&E researchers is critical for effective policy making.

Clearly, the issue extends beyond 9-11 in both substance and scope. This report attempts to address the longer-term question of how the United States can best compete with other leading nations that are already adopting national policies to attract more international scientists and engineers. Chapter 5 summarizes the committee's findings on what we know and how much more we need to know, and it provides recommendations to policy makers for ways to maintain the nation's strength in the critical sphere of S&E.


Several terms used throughout this report—foreign-born, temporary resident, foreign, and international students and postdoctoral scholars—refer to overlapping populations but are not entirely interchangeable.

Foreign-born: Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars born outside the United States. Some of these students and scholars may have become naturalized US citizens before or during their graduate studies and would thus be included in the “US citizens or permanent residents” sections of graphs. Permanent residents qualify for the same citizen-restricted federal grants as do US-born students and postdoctoral scholars and can be hired to work in industry and at national laboratories.

Temporary resident: Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the United States on temporary visas, usually F-1, J-1, or H-1b visas. These students and scholars are not eligible for citizen-restricted federal grants and in most cases cannot be employed as staff at national laboratories. Because F-1 and J-1 visas have work restrictions, people holding these visas have less flexibility in their employment opportunities than US citizens and permanent residents.

Foreign: Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from different countries than where they are studying. Foreign students do not necessarily have to have obtained degrees outside the United States; the fact that they require visas to study in the United States qualifies them as foreign.

International: Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who study in more than one country. This term is used throughout the report to indicate graduate students or postdoctoral scholars who have obtained at least high-school degrees or their equivalent outside the United States and have come to the United States to obtain graduate education or postdoctoral training. International students and scholars require temporary visas to enter the United States. The term is not restricted to students in the United States, however, and can apply to any students or scholars studying outside their home countries. With the trend toward studying in two countries and then settling in a third, the term seems to fit the current situation better than foreign.



National Research Council. 1993. Science, Technology, and the Federal Government: National Goals for a New Era. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; National Science Board. 2004. Science & Engineering Indicators 2004 (NSB 04-1). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, Chapter 6.


Hey-Keung Koh. 2002. Trends in international student flows to the United States. New York: Institute of International Education. The IIE, funded by the Department of State,collects data on educational exchange between the United States and other nations and annuallypublishes its Open Doors report based on responses from over 2,700 institutions.


National Science Board. 2004. Science and Engineering Indicators 2004 (NSB 04-1).Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, Chapter 2.


Mark Regets, senior analyst, Division of Science Resource Statistics, National ScienceFoundation, presentation to committee, July 19, 2004. Estimates based on NSF Survey ofDoctoral Recipients 2001 and NSF Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates 2001;Geoff Davis, Director, Sigma Xi Postdoctoral Survey, comments to committee November 11,2004.


Paula E. Stephan and Sharon G. Levin. 2005. “Foreign scholars in US science: Contributionsand costs.” In: Science and the University, eds. R. Ehrenberg and P. Stephan, Madison,WI: University of Wisconsin Press (forthcoming).


Jessica Wang. 1999. American Science in an Age of Anxiety. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press; Board of Directors of the American Association for theAdvancement of Science. 1954. Science, 120: 958; Committee on Loyalty in Relation to Government Support of Unclassified Research. 1956. “Loyalty and research” Science, 12: 660.


Hey-Keung Koh. 2002. Ibid, p. 3. It should be noted that numbers of international students in the United States rose steadily between 1955 and 2002, so the decrease in the US market share indicates a large increase in demand for higher education.

Copyright © 2005, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK37562


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