This report reflects the continuing interest of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) in the education and training of scientists and engineers in the United States. COSEPUP's 1993 report Science, Technology, and the Federal Government: National Goals for a New Era emphasized the importance of human resources to the research enterprise. A second report, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (1995), urged institutions to offer graduate students expanded educational experiences and to equip them better to choose from among the broad range of careers now open to scientists and engineers. That concern was extended to postdoctoral scholars in 2000 with Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers.

Increasing the attractiveness of science and engineering (S&E) careers gained importance in the late 1990s as fewer US citizens enrolled in advanced training in S&E, a trend accompanied by a substantial rise in the proportion of international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in US institutions. An unrelated but equally pressing trend that is likely to affect the quality of US S&E education is the recognition by nations around the world of the value of S&E to their economies and societies. From the advanced industrial societies of Europe and Japan to the newly emergent world powers of China and India, nations have launched efforts to compete for the most talented scientists and engineers worldwide.

In an effort to address the complex conditions affecting the relative standing of US S&E, the National Academies charged COSEPUP to address the following questions:

  1. What is known about the impact of international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars on the advancement of US science, US undergraduate and graduate educational institutions, the US and other national economies, and US national security and international relations?
  2. What is the impact of the US academic system on international graduate students' and postdoctoral scholars' intellectual development, careers, and perceptions of the United States? How does it differ if they stay in the United States or return to their home countries?
  3. What is known about the impact of international student enrollment on the recruitment of domestic S&E talent in the United States? What is the status of working conditions for international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars compared with their domestic counterparts?
  4. What are the impacts of various policies that reshape or reduce the flow of international students and postdoctoral scholars (for example, visas, immigration rules, and working conditions)?
  5. What findings and conclusions can be drawn from the answers to the preceding questions? What principles should guide national policy regarding international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars?

In considering their charge, the committee encountered difficulties whose solution will require much more public discussion. A persistent hindrance is the lack of accurate and timely data about international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, a difficulty that is addressed in Chapter 4. In addition, it became clear that the recruitment goals of many academic administrators are often in tension and sometimes contradictory. For example, one of the goals is to recruit the best students possible, regardless of national origin, to maximize research productivity and departmental quality. A second goal, not always in harmony, is to find economical ways to staff academic laboratories and classrooms. Similarly, a goal for many administrators, particularly at state-supported institutions, is to provide educational and research opportunities for students who are from that state and are likely to remain there and contribute to the state's economy after graduation. A goal for policy makers at the national level is to attract larger numbers of US citizens into S&E, especially among women and underrepresented minority groups.1

The purpose of this study, therefore, was to recommend measures that would both address those diverse goals and maintain the quality of the nation's S&E enterprise in the face of new trends. Implementing such measures will be possible only with mutual understanding and cooperation between those who set national-security policies and those who educate and employ scientists and engineers.

To carry out the work of the study, COSEPUP selected an ad hoc committee made up of people with special expertise in the demographic and personnel aspects of the S&E workforce and with wide research and educational experience in public and private universities, the private sector, professional societies, and government service. The committee heard from numerous experts and participants in diverse educational and research fields, from government agencies, and from persons who provided data on the recruitment, career paths, and motivations of international students. It also discussed in depth the recent effects of post-9/11 federal policy changes on the flow of foreign-born scientists and engineers and on the traditional perception of the United States as a welcoming destination for international students and scholars.

In its attempt to address the diverse trends and conditions embraced by these topics, the committee focused its deliberations on three central questions:

  • How can the United States best improve the openness and mobility that characterize scientific activity while addressing concerns about the economy and national security?
  • To what extent does the United States depend on international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to maintain the excellence of its research and development enterprise?
  • How can the United States optimize the participation of domestic students and at the same time recruit the best international talent?

The details of the committee's findings and recommendations are found in Chapter 5. Their overall thrust is to provide a basis for clarifying priorities and, where necessary, reshaping the sometimes contradictory policies that govern the movement and activities of international scientists and engineers, particularly with respect to visa and immigration policy. The committee became convinced during the course of its work that such measures are essential to ensure the continued high quality of the US S&E enterprise in the years to come.

In conclusion, I would like to add a personal note of thanks to the dedicated and responsive members of the ad hoc committee responsible for this report. They brought to this project, in addition to long experience and good judgment, an exemplary degree of promptness and thoroughness in responding to staff queries and vetting successive chapter drafts. The accuracy and perspective of the text were further enhanced by the work of an external review committee and by feedback from National Academies staff members with expertise on this topic.

Phillip A. Griffiths, Chair

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



See, for example, John Hennessey, Susan Hockfield, and Shirley Tilghman. 2005. “Women in science: The real issue.” The Boston Globe (February 12).