Does America need more scientists and technical workers from abroad? As the nation debates immigration reform, companies and universities that employ foreign scientific and technical personnel are arguing that the answer is yes, and that Congress should significantly increase the number of H-1B visas, which admit skilled workers to the United States for a limited number of years. The idea of a scientist shortage is "almost universally accepted [in political circles], and there's almost no one in Washington and no one on the Hill who says that there's a glut of scientists," says Ron Hira, a policy expert at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Many worry that a dearth of citizen-scientists harms the country in important ways. Security-related projects require researchers eligible for high-level secret clearances. Dependence on foreign researchers leaves the nation vulnerable to unpredictable international events that can cut off the supply. And as globalization increases, foreign scientists who decide to return home not only take their knowledge with them but also often become economic competitors. A dependable supply of homegrown talent, many of these observers believe, would solve these problems, but such a supply seems to be something American universities are increasingly unable to provide.

Despite these perceptions, tens of thousands of Ph.D.s, many of them American-born and American-educated, are stuck in dead-end positions, struggling to find careers commensurate with their training and experience. Many others with technical expertise watch companies use H-1B visas to move their jobs offshore. A major "disconnect [separates] what the politicians believe is happening ... and what seems to be the reality on the ground," Hira says.

Far from signaling a shortage of trained scientific talent, current conditions suggest that what this country fails to produce is suitable career opportunities for thousands who have extensive scientific and technical training. That many of America's most gifted young people eschew science in favor of other careers shows neither a lack of ability and intellectual interest nor a failure of our finest schools to teach the subject well. Rather, it reveals the decay of a system that once offered a life so captivating that many of our brightest students dedicated themselves to years of hard intellectual labor to attain it, but that now offers years of hard study followed, in too many cases, by years of disappointment and frustration.

In the debate over scientific immigration, however--another symptom of the system's decay--the voices of the scientific and technical workers most affected, the Ph.D.s in precarious early-career positions and the technical workers facing competition from abroad, have scarcely been heard, Hira says. Regardless of the citizenship of these scientists, the arrival of additional people with comparable qualifications has been shown to depress income and increase competition. Still, "the only two organizations that I know about that have been actively involved in the debate on immigration" on the side of workers represent electrical engineers and computer programmers. "I don't see any scientists involved in this at all. ... What is confusing to me is who's representing their interests. Nobody, as far as I can tell."

Losing labs

The need for more visas to bring in more scientists may be apparent to officials at companies or universities that employ large numbers of technical workers, or at universities that graduate large numbers of foreign students who wish to stay here. It's a lot less obvious to a Ph.D. scientist we'll call Mark Mywords. "The loss of fully trained citizen scientists from the research establishment is occurring at an increasing rate," he says. His own temporary university job appears safe for the time being, but because of the "current funding climate," a number of researchers he knows, including some faculty members, "are losing their positions this summer." And the many recent reports from prestigious bodies arguing that "American students are falling behind in science, and ... [that] we need to train more to retain our competitive edge, are missing the key point," he insists.

The key point, he says, is that bright Americans "are turning away from science as a career because it offers a life of tremendously hard work, delaying all sorts of personal milestones--starting a family, buying a home--" while providing "almost no future job security." Nor does Mark foresee improvement anytime soon. Even when there are "spot shortages in scientists with specific skills," he says, "the problem can be quickly fixed," not by raising salaries or improving working conditions--measures that would tend to make science a more attractive career to able young people--but "by hiring from abroad."

A precarious pyramid

"One has to be skeptical of [senior] scientists who say we need to educate [or import] more scientists, because they have a great self-interest," says labor economist Paula Stephan of Georgia State University in Atlanta. "More [scientists] means they have more people for their labs."

The American system of organizing research, based on temporary grants to labs located within universities and staffed primarily by graduate students and temporary postdoctoral trainees, is a "pyramid scheme [that] just keeps producing more and more and more" scientists with nowhere to go, says Brown University microbiologist Susan Gerbi, who has written extensively about the organization of research. Adding thousands of extra scientists from abroad compounds the challenges that early-career scientists face. Today's funding situation--"the worst I've seen in over 30 years," Gerbi says--further aggravates the situation, causing lab chiefs to lay off staff and some labs to close.

The "temporary-worker model" the United States uses to staff its labs "is completely out of equilibrium, [because] the country doesn't have the absorptive capacity" to provide career employment--rather than just temporary jobs--to all of the young scientists that the system produces, Gerbi continues. Instead of building up that absorptive capacity, we've built up supply to meet the demand of senior investigators and other employers who need inexpensive skilled labor. This pyramid "can't continue forever," Gerbi warns, and the flight of young Americans from science careers may be a sign of its impending collapse. "We need to have ... some new steady-state model" that will produce fewer new scientists and provide them with more stable careers. Then the talented undergraduate science majors whom Gerbi sees shunning scientific careers will be far likelier to continue on for their Ph.D.s.

Although efforts to provide real career opportunities for more scientists would create stronger incentives for Americans to seek science careers, the political momentum appears to be on the side of granting more H-1B visas. "There [are] a lot of employers who will bring in H-1Bs to just increase labor supply in the U.S.," Hira says. This depresses incomes and working conditions not only because more job candidates become available but also because the new employees lack any real bargaining power once they're here. "The problem with the H-1B visa is that it's held by the employer. ... If they fire you or you speak up against them, you're out of status and you've got to leave. I think that in some cases, [these workers] are indentured." This affects the working conditions not only for visa holders but also for their citizen colleagues. Universities, which are exempt from the limit on visas, can import as many postdocs and other temporary scientific workers as they wish.

Beyond these employers who use the H-1B visa "as a bridge to immigration for their workers, other employers are using it to transfer work," Hira continues. Companies involved in what is euphemistically called "technology transfer" get contracts with American firms to send work to countries with much lower pay scales. To facilitate the move, companies temporarily bring H-1B workers into the United States, where Americans train them, often as a condition of receiving severance pay and unemployment benefits when their jobs go overseas. When the foreign workers return home, the work follows.

So prevalent is this practice that India's minister of commerce, Kamal Nath, has been quoted by the International Herald Tribune calling the H-1B "the outsourcing visa." India, whose nationals obtained two-thirds of the 2006 quota of H-1B visas, has been pressing for an increase. And where outsourcing once mainly threatened jobs in computer programming and engineering, Hira says, it is spreading into pharmaceutical research, a major employer of American biomedical scientists, many of them already facing poor career prospects. "I think there's a lot more vulnerability than people realize," Hira says.

Speaking out

Mark Mywords opposes any increase in the number of H-1B visas as "not in my best interest," but he is reluctant to express his opposition because of "the emotions and repercussions that must be borne if citizen-postdocs and faculty speak out on this issue." He has many foreign colleagues--"people that we respect, admire, and care about. It is extremely hard to convince them that any advocacy against H-1B visas is not an assault on them personally." He received hate mail after publicly expressing his views. "To get them to understand the labor market issues here, when they have just gained a foothold in this great scientific establishment of ours, is almost impossible," he says.

But another possible reason few people speak out is that young scientists are very busy, generally impecunious, and bereft of organizations to defend their economic interests, which are different from those of the universities and senior investigators who dominate the organizations that speak for science. But whether or not early-career scientists speak up, they will have to live with whatever decisions Congress makes. "Whatever gets enacted in terms of immigration," Hira says, "is going to affect the careers of current scientists and postdocs, as well as future ones."

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Photo: Tobias Lee

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.