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Foreign Science and Engineering Presence in U.S. Institutions and the Labor Force

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Publication Date: July 2008

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: 97-746

Topic: Education (Education personnel and population)


The increased presence of foreign students in graduate science and engineering programs and in the scientific workforce has been and continues to be of concern to some in the scientific community. Enrollment of U.S. citizens in graduate science and engineering programs has not kept pace with that of foreign students in those programs. In addition to the number of foreign students in graduate science and engineering programs, a significant number of university faculty in the scientific disciplines are foreign, and foreign doctorates are employed in large numbers by industry.

Few will dispute that U.S. universities and industry have chosen foreign talent to fill many positions. Foreign scientists and engineers serve the needs of industry at the doctorate level and also have been found to serve in major roles at the masters level. Not surprisingly, there are charges that U.S. workers are adversely affected by the entry of foreign scientists and engineers, who reportedly accept lower wages than U.S. citizens would accept in order to enter or remain in the United States. These arguments occur in the context of a job market in which there is a reported imbalance between supply and demand for scientists and engineers in certain fields. The
National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that between 1998 and 2008, employment in science and engineering fields will increase at more than four times the rate for all other occupations. In addition, approximately 80% of the increase in science and engineering will be in computer-related positions.

NSF data reveal that in 2004, the foreign student population earned approximately 32.1% of the doctorate degrees in the sciences and approximately 61.3% of the doctorate degrees in engineering. In 2004, foreign students on temporary resident visas earned 28.4% of the doctorates in the sciences, and 57.2% of the doctorates in engineering. The participation rates in 2003 were 27.4% and 55.3%, respectively. In 2004, permanent resident status students earned 3.7% of the doctorates in the sciences and 4.2% of the doctorates in engineering, a decrease from the 2003 levels of 4.2% and 5%, respectively. Trend data for science and engineering degrees for the years 1995-2004 reveal that of the non-U.S. citizen population, temporary resident status students consistently have earned the majority of the doctorate degrees.

Many in the scientific community maintain that in order to compete with countries that are rapidly expanding their scientific and technological capabilities, the country needs to bring to the United States those whose skills will benefit society and will enable us to compete in the new-technology based global economy. However, the academic community is concerned that the more stringent visa requirements for foreign students may have a continued impact on enrollments in colleges and universities. There are those who believe that the underlying problems of foreign students in graduate science and engineering programs is not necessarily that there are too many foreign-born students, but that there are not enough U.S. students pursuing scientific and technical disciplines. This report will be updated periodically.