Other viewpoints: Science, security lose as foreign-born enrollment dips
This op-ed appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 17, 2004.
By: Win Phillips
Win Phillips is vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at the University of Florida.
This year’s marked decline in international graduate student applications, largely attributed to the difficulty of obtaining student visas in the wake of Sept. 11, is ironic. If history is any guide, the foreign students we’re losing as a result of the war on terrorism may be the very ones we need to help us win it.
International graduate student applications to U.S. universities have plummeted 32 percent from a year ago, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools. Here at the University of Florida, where foreign students make up about 5.6 percent of enrollment, the admissions office has received 35 percent fewer graduate applications than at this time last year.
The number of foreign graduate students seeking to study in this country still exceeds available spaces. But many admissions officers believe they’re receiving fewer quality applicants as top students from China, India and South Korea — traditionally, America’s largest sources of foreign students — opt for graduate schools in Europe or remain at the best institutions in their home countries.
All this at a time when, according to the May report of a federal advisory panel, the United States ranks 17th in the world in its share of 18- to 24-year-olds who earn natural science and engineering degrees.
The looming falloff in foreign student enrollment has barely registered with Americans, always divided on the subject of foreigners on our shores. But it’s a problem, and not just because an estimated 15 percent of U.S. scientists and 17 percent of U.S. engineers are non-native, according to a 1999 report by the National Science Foundation. It’s a problem because the decline threatens to weaken the long record of vital contributions of foreign-born scientists and engineers to this country — not only in peacetime, but also in wartime.
About a third of the U.S. winners of the Nobel Prize were born outside this country, according to the American Immigrant Law Foundation, an immigration rights group. Recent Nobel-winning immigrant scientists include Eric Kandel, Herbert Kroemer and Alan MacDiarmid, who were among the winners of Nobel awards in physiology or medicine, physics and chemistry in 2000.
Both Kandel, a native of Austria, and MacDiarmid, a native of New Zealand, studied or trained at U.S. universities before launching the research that led to their Nobels. No one can say how many of the nearly 600,000 international graduate and undergraduate students who study at U.S. institutions annually might follow in these or other pre-eminent scientists’ footsteps. Chances are good, though, that the tradition will continue.
In 2002-2003, about 17 percent of foreign students in the United States studied engineering, while an additional 12 percent studied mathematics and computer sciences, according to the Institute of International Education. As this number falls, it will also affect our ability to prosecute the war on terror.
The mechanism is partly indirect: While providing scientific and technical training to international students, U.S. graduate schools also inculcate them with an appreciation for democracy, free market economics and respect for individual rights and freedoms. When foreign students return to their homes, they carry these values with them, mitigating or at least providing alternatives to the views and influence of extremists.
Foreign-born scientists also have a strong history as pivotal contributors to U.S. wartime efforts, especially in World War II. With the exception of Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the Manhattan Project, the principal scientists behind the atomic bomb were immigrants.
Physicist Enrico Fermi, father of the world’s first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction, came to the United States in 1938 to escape the fascist dictatorship of Mussolini. Edward Teller, a Hungarian native, emigrated in 1935 and became an American citizen in 1941. Danish physicist Niels Bohr escaped the Nazi occupation of Denmark and joined the Manhattan Project as an adviser.
Considering that several of the Sept. 11 attackers entered this country on student visas, it’s reasonable that the United States would boost scrutiny and tighten standards on the visa process. But the government desperately needs to find ways to screen out the few students who pose threats while keeping the door open to the much larger group of promising scientific and technical minds that have long strengthened this country. Quite simply, our security is at stake.
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