International Students Essential

Writer: 
October 1, 2005

 

Illustration: James Yang

James Yang

International science and engineering students play a critical role in U.S. research advances, says a report issued in May by the National Academies. The report stresses the importance of attracting such students. The Academies is a group of private, nonprofit institutions that advises the government on issues of science, technology, and health policy.

According to Lewis M. Siegel, the dean of Duke's Graduate School, who served on the committee that developed the report, there has been a great decline in U.S. citizens pursuing degrees in the science and engineering fields. "It is clear that for more than a decade since the early Nineties, the actual number of U.S. citizens getting Ph.D.s in science and engineering has been declining," Siegel says. "They're neither applying, enrolling, nor graduating. We're dependent on innovation. And in the research universities, this gap has been more than filled by international students."

The report, "Policy Implications: International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States," warns that attracting international students will become increasingly difficult as countries like China strengthen their own research training infrastructure, thereby competing for top-level students. It also notes that international students may be deterred by the U.S.'s unwieldy visa process for students. For example, Siegel says, these students have, among other things, been required to certify that they do not plan to remain in the U.S. "The visa period is relatively short," he adds, "and there are problems with re-entry if an international student needs to leave the country for family reasons or to participate in a conference."

At Duke, the percentage of Ph.D. students from foreign countries rose from 25 percent to 35 percent between 1996 and 2005. In some science and engineering departments, the rise was even more noticeable. Neurobiology went from 3 percent to 46 percent; cell and molecular biology, 3 percent to 17; biomedical engineering, 16 to 25. In other science fields, the percentages of foreign students remained constant or even fell.

Last year showed a decrease in new foreign enrollees. Foreign students made up 32 percent of the Ph.D. class that entered Duke in 1995. That percentage climbed steadily to 54 percent for the class that entered in 2003. In 2004, it dropped to 44 percent.

According to Siegel, one issue of particular concern is a recent Bush administration security proposal to restrict international students' access to research equipment that is subject to export controls. It would require universities to obtain "deemed export" licenses for international researchers to work with a long list of equipment as commonplace as lasers or oscilloscopes. "To try to figure out everything that you have on your campus that's on these lists would cost millions of dollars," Siegel says.

In June, President Richard H. Brodhead sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce opposing that proposal. A preliminary assessment of the policy's potential impact on Duke indicated it would require a separate office with two to four full-time staff members simply to work through the individual cases, wrote Brodhead. In the meantime, he said, research would suffer.

"In cases such as this, while U.S. citizens and permanent residents could freely use the technology required to conduct fundamental research at Duke, their fellow researchers (students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty) would be prohibited, pending the results of a license review process. This prohibition would delay, and could even deny, researchers access to the resources they need," Brodhead wrote.

The changes "would have a significant chilling effect on our efforts to recruit and retain the most talented foreign scientists and engineers," wrote Brodhead. The result would be a loss of academic freedom, and "we would be signaling to our students that the American university had become a very different place."

Brodhead noted that the changes would undermine recent moves by the Department of Homeland Security to relax visa restrictions, and he questioned their effectiveness. The solution to managing access to sensitive equipment should lie in the screening process that prevents researchers who present a security risk from obtaining visas and coming to the U.S. in the first place, he wrote.

According to James Siedow, vice provost for research, the university has already taken a firm stance on inappropriate proposals to limit foreign researchers' access to equipment.