APS News

July/August 2023 (Volume 32, Number 7)

Opinion: The World is Coming for US Science Talent

Science’s best and brightest must jump through hoops to study and work in the United States. Without common-sense immigration reform, they will look elsewhere — and the US will lose out.

By Moumita Das | July 13, 2023

man talent briefcase Earth

A few decades ago, I was a quiet girl from West Bengal, India. Even before I knew what physics was, I marveled at the thread it stitched through the natural world — an insect that could walk on water; a rainbow that shimmered on the surface of an oily puddle.

Today, I am a theoretical physicist in Rochester, New York, and my specialty is cells and tissues. My team has bolstered scientists’ understanding of the cytoskeleton, the scaffolding that holds cells together, and the cartilage that cushions joints. This research, which has received millions of dollars in funding from the US government and private foundations, could shape the development of new materials — imagine a prosthetic limb that heals its own wounds.

But here’s the thing: I’m far from unique. For decades, STEM immigrants in the US like me have built great businesses, invented new technologies, and conducted crucial research. In 2019, immigrants made up 19% of the total STEM workforce, including 45% of workers with PhDs. Immigrants founded more than half of the US’s privately-held billion-dollar startups. They represent an outsized proportion of Nobel Prize winners in science: Of Americans who won the prize in physics, chemistry, or medicine between 1901 and 2022, more than 1 in 3 were immigrants.

My own subfield has many brilliant immigrants. M. Cristina Marchetti, an Italian-born physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has uncovered secrets of active matter — groups of self-propelled particles, like cells in a colony or birds in a flock — and has mentored countless scientists, including me. Manu Prakash, an Indian-born bioengineer at Stanford, has gone far beyond his work on cells to create easy-to-build tools, including a $1 paper microscope, that has made science accessible to people around the world.

Like Drs. Marchetti and Prakash, many international scientists in the US graduated from American institutions, and many want to stay. The US would be wise to let them. College enrollment is stumbling at US universities, even as the need for STEM workers is projected to grow more than twice as fast as the need for non-STEM workers.

The success of many immigrants in science obscures the difficult paths we took to get here. In theory, the path goes like this: Foreign students attend US universities on student visas. If their employers sponsor them after they graduate, they can become temporary residents, then permanent residents (with a coveted green card), and then, if all goes well, citizens.

In reality, America’s immigration bureaucracy is a thorny tangle. According to an APS survey of international members, nearly 3 in 4 respondents reported challenges getting a visa. Delays were the biggest obstacle, with 1 in 4 respondents reporting waits between two months and a year.

That’s been my experience. In my early 30s, while I was a postdoc in the US, I was offered a job at Rochester Institute of Technology, but my visa stipulated I had to return to India for two years before I could take the job. To avoid this, I needed a waiver that required written permission from three levels of government in India. Faced with unreachable contacts and a bureaucratic nightmare, I was forced to delay my start at RIT by a year.

Some visas have created more nightmarish scenarios. For example, students from some countries can obtain only single-entry visas. If they leave the US, they have no guarantee they’ll be able to return — like my mentee from Myanmar, who has not seen her family in five years.

Other rules make no sense. For example, to apply for F-1 study visas, students must prove they intend to leave the US after school. This begs two questions: Why must students pretend they don’t dream of staying and working here, and why must the US pretend it doesn’t need them?

But perhaps the greatest challenges are faced by temporary residents, whose visas usually depend on their jobs. At universities, a gap in funding — a constant in cash-strapped academia — can force a postdoc out of the country. A layoff during a recession can upend a scientist’s life. Some scientists even endure exploitative workplaces or unfulfilling roles, too afraid to risk their visas as they wait for permanent residency.

And the wait for permanent residency, depending on where a scientist originates, may be long — especially for immigrants from the Global South. The US caps the number of green cards it gives to applicants from any one country, a problem for people from populous nations like India, which send enormous numbers of scientists to the US. The cap has created a huge backlog: Many Indians must wait years or even decades to become permanent residents — including one of my brilliant colleagues, who won a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, but who expects to wait years for her green card.

What happens when labyrinthine rules make the US less attractive to STEM immigrants? These folks search elsewhere, and many countries look enticing. The United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada are projected to attract growing numbers of international students. These and other countries, like Japan and Germany, are changing their laws to make it easier for skilled immigrants to study and stay. Consider a Canadian program announced in June: Some temporary residents in the US will be eligible to come to Canada on open work visas. That’s serious.

My colleagues and I have witnessed this trend ourselves. For example, a highly qualified Iranian student recently turned down a spot in my colleague’s research group, heading instead to the UK. I’m not surprised: Nearly 90% of international students say they want to pursue degrees in countries where they can stay and work after school, according to an APS survey.

Meanwhile, some graduates return to their home countries, including China. It makes no sense that we educate students, only to send them and their newfound knowledge away — sometimes into the waiting arms of the US’s technological competitors.

For now, the US remains a magnet for the world’s brightest scientific minds. But as innovation accelerates and countries jostle for technological dominance, the US must not be complacent.

These issues are complicated, but the solutions don’t have to be. For one, the US ought to stop making students feign disinterest in staying. Let them declare their intent to study and pursue a career in the US after graduation. Also, the US should exempt from green card caps those immigrants with advanced STEM degrees from US schools and good job offers. And the nation must give international STEM students and scientists an easier path to permanent residency, without hopscotching endlessly between temporary visas.

Some laws, if passed, would accomplish this. For example, the Keep STEM Talent Act, originally introduced in Congress a few years ago with APS’s help, would exempt STEM PhD-earners with US job offers from green card caps. APS is still working to build support for this bill (and you can take action to support it, too).

For the US to maintain its global standing in science and technology, we need more of everything — more investment in STEM education in the US, more funding for American research, and more STEM workers, including immigrants. After all, international scientists want to work in the United States. They want to build new businesses, invent transformative technologies, and solve great scientific mysteries, right here in American labs, companies, and schools.

For the nation’s sake, let’s make it easier for them to get here — and easier to stay.

Moumita Das is a professor of physics at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she studies soft matter and biological physics.

To learn about APS’s advocacy efforts on immigration and more, or to take action, visit aps.org/policy.

The views expressed in interviews and in opinion pieces, like the Back Page, are not necessarily those of APS. APS News welcomes letters responding to these and other issues.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Taryn MacKinney

July/August 2023 (Volume 32, Number 7)

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Articles in this Issue
Physicists and Biologists Uncover New Evidence of Octopuses’ Complex Sleep
The Hunt for Planet Nine
Simulating Spacetime with Quantum Mechanical Materials
This Month in Physics History
Jim Hartle, 1939-2023
As Undergrad Physics Enrollment Stumbles, Departments Look Inward
APS Industry Mentorship Program Bolsters the Career of an Aspiring Quantum Scientist
To Bolster Undergraduate Enrollment, Some Colleges Are Emphasizing Engineering Physics Degrees
Nick Wise, Scientific Sleuth and Fluid Dynamics Researcher
APS Innovation Fund Supports “Vibrant” US-Africa Collaborations in Modeling Electronic Structure
Opinion: The World is Coming for US Science Talent
New Budget Caps Dampen Outlook for Science Spending Surge