Anti-globalization rhetoric threatens scientific and technological progress

The U.S. depends on international collaborations and immigrants to solve domestic and global problems.
André Porter
Nov. 3, 2016

Opponents of globalization point to low-wage immigrant workers, trade imbalances and cultural differences as reasons for redefining the United States’ international relationships and tightening its immigration laws.

What rarely figures into the conversation is the fact that international collaborations and foreign-born talent are essential if the U.S. wants to continue to lead the world in terms of scientific output and continue to produce life-saving medications and life-altering technologies.

America’s No. 1 at research output

When we talk about scientific progress, we must focus on what we can measure directly.

One measure of scientific progress is output. For many researchers, institutions and countries, output equates to the number of publications produced.

The United States ranks first in the world in scientific publications. It produced 9.36 million articles between 1999 and 2015, followed by China (4.08 million) and the United Kingdom (2.62 million).

In addition, articles written by multiple authors increased to 75.4 percent from 61.8 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to the National Science Board’s Science & Engineering Indicators 2016 report. Of those co-authored papers, the number authored with researchers at foreign institutions jumped to 32.5 percent from 19.3 percent.

This increase in co-authorship with foreign scientists reflects not only the improving competencies of domestic and international researchers but also  that scientists already appreciate the importance of collaborating with scientists abroad to solve research problems.

Policies and rhetoric that deter international collaborations could decrease U.S. scientific output, as measured by publications.

American immigrants are winners

Another measure of a nation’s scientific progress is the potential exhibited by its workforce, in this case those trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

According to the Science & Engineering Indicators 2016 report, foreign-born individuals in 2013 made up 27 percent of the United States’ college-educated scientific workforce, an increase from 15.8 percent in 1993.

To evaluate the impact that foreign-born scientists have had on the United States’ global standing, we need only look at arguably the most prestigious international scientific award one can obtain: the Nobel Prize.

From 1901 to 2015, the U.S. has been home to 42 percent of all Nobel Prize awardees, 31 percent of whom are Americans born elsewhere. In fact, none of the American awardees this year were born in the United States.

Foreign-born researchers have found and are working on cures

One of the most pressing public health issues today is the Zika virus, which could inflict a host of birth defects upon a generation of unborn Americans.

While Congress was slow to act on emergency funding for the mosquito-borne disease, the National Institutes of Health still managed to fund 32 research projects to investigate the virus and develop a vaccine. Nine of those NIH-funded projects are led by foreign-born researchers.

You have to wonder: How many more Zika-infected children would be born with severe brain defects if we refused these researchers entry? What’s more: How much longer would it take to develop a cure for any disease if scientists were not allowed or didn’t think it was safe to come to the U.S. to conduct research?

Research projects already are suffering

The United Kingdom serves as a cautionary tale for how fear and prejudice influence policy decisions that can stifle scientific progress.

Earlier this year, the U.K. held a referendum in which 52 percent of voters decided to leave the European Union. The EU is a 60-year alliance among 28 member countries that pool resources and allow free movement of workers across borders. One factor that drove the U.K. to leave the EU, popularly known as Brexit for “British exit,” was the public opinion that free-flowing immigration hinders the U.K. economy.

While the long-term economic consequences of Brexit won’t be known for some time, the effect that it will have on science in the U.K. is more discernable.

From 2007 to 2013, the U.K. contributed about 5.4 billion euros to the EU’s research-and-development budget. During that same period, U.K. researchers received around 8.8 billion euros in grant funding from the EU. That’s a 63 percent return on investment that may evaporate post-Brexit.

In fact, fears that U.K. researchers will not be able to receive EU funding are leading some EU institutions to drop U.K. scientists from research projects.

With research funding likely to decrease across the country and the movement of immigrants becoming more restrictive, Brexit will make it difficult for U.K. institutions to recruit talented students, postdocs, and researchers.

Losing both money and talent likely will decrease the U.K.’s research output and quality.

Foreign students make tuition cheaper for Americans

U.S. institutions, which receive the bulk of their R&D funding from the federal government, would suffer from isolationism in both similar and different ways.

As in the case of Brexit, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies in the U.S. would deter scientific collaborations and weaken recruitment of talented students, postdocs and researchers. Thus, scientific output likely would decline.

But there’s also a pocketbook issue: already-rising tuition costs.

International students, who generally pay full tuition to attend U.S. institutions, make up 12 percent of the student population at public universities and contribute 28 percent in tuition and fees. According to the National Association for Foreign Student Advisors, during the 2014–2015 academic year, international students contributed $30.5 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 373,000 jobs.

One way to think of it is that international students subsidize tuition costs for American students.

But we’re already seeing some evidence that Americans’ anti-immigrant rhetoric is influencing international students’ decisions about where to attend college. If enough of them think better of it, the U.S. will lose not only their bright minds but also their dollars.

American students may end up having to cough up the difference.

American science and technology have been great all along

The United States finds itself in a tug of war of ideologies. Terrorism and employment security have given rise to the fear that immigration is bad and globalization leaves the country weak.

However, the U.S. owes many of its advancements and innovations to the very people some would deem unfit to enter its borders.

Stricter regulations on immigration — in the form of ideological bans or what some have dubbed “extreme vetting” — could not only scare off the talent needed to increase our nation’s potential for innovation but, even, change the course of a country that has flourished on the backs of people from around the world.

The sciences rely on the minds of individuals from all walks of life. Instead of perpetuating an ideology that would sever our connections with researchers around the world and lower our nation’s scientific output and quality, we need to appreciate what has made the U.S. scientific enterprise great all along and go even further to attract the technicians, theoreticians, investigators and physicians who will help us tackle the grand challenges of our time.

André Porter

André Porter was a member of the ASBMB policy team. Today he is a policy director for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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