Universities in the United States attract large numbers of international graduate students and postdoc researchers. Internationalization of advanced training and research in the US supports the global system of academic science. The current political environment is increasingly hostile to internationalization. Should internationalization of the academic research enterprise erode, the global science system could weaken.
Academic research is a global undertaking. Knowledge is borderless and academic careers are increasingly transnational. Research universities in the United States have long been at the center of worldwide scientific networks and have contributed to the development of a vibrant global science system. Countless academics move to the US for study and early-career work. Student and postdoc mobility has contributed to the internationalization of academic science and is an underpinning of the global science system. Likewise, American universities benefit tremendously from the smarts, skills, and labor of international postdocs and graduate students. With the future of internationalization uncertain, it is worth considering implications for graduate education in the United States, as well the future of academic research enterprise.
Science and engineering graduate students and postdocs are possibly the most internationalized groups in US higher education. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), 40 percent of science and engineering graduate students and 56 percent of postdocs are temporary visa holders. Less than two years into his presidency, higher education is grappling with the "Trump effect." Total international student enrollments are down, breaking a decade-long trend of robust growth. The most recent data available for postdocs and graduate students are from 2016 and NSF will not release updated numbers until 2019. The extent to which the Trump effect will impact the number of graduate students and postdocs is not yet fully known. Much will depend on policy and cultural developments.
Immigration Policy and Enforcement
US universities have fared well under shifts in immigration policy in recent history. Even after changes to the law following September 11, 2001, universities experienced few limitations. In practical terms, the pool of international graduate students is checked only by student demand and institutional capacity. Further, universities are exempt from the cap on H1-B skilled-worker visas. American corporations are limited in the number of skilled-workers they hire from abroad, but universities can hire international postdocs virtually without restriction. The H1-B visa is renewable and can lead to permanent residency. Working as a postdoc through an H1-B has been attractive to highly-educated scientists and engineers who want to enter the US.
Hardliners in the Trump administration and Congress want to restrict immigration. The law has not changed yet, but proposals have included limiting the number of H1-B visas available to universities and imposing additional regulations on student visas. Should such measures become law, the flow of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers would likely diminish. Even absent specific changes to the law, President Trump's "travel ban," and aggressive actions taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol make the US a less appealing place to study and work.
The Climate for Science
The United States spends more on academic research than any other country in the world. The relative abundance of research funding, coupled with strong academic culture, has long made American universities attractive places for study and research. As with immigration, there have been few significant policy changes and, in fact, the most recent federal budget modestly expanded research funding. However, the first budget proposal offered by the Trump Administration recommended deep cuts to research and targeted international exchange and collaboration programs for elimination. Should Republican majorities in Congress expand, those proposals could become law.
At the same time, cultural conditions have deteriorated. The federal government has substantially demoted the use of science in policymaking, highlighted by high profile climate change skepticism. Strands of anti-intellectualism have always been present in American life but have recently propelled a populist movement and now occupy the bully pulpit. At least some prospective postdocs and graduate students will perceive the American-mood as hostile to science and look for opportunities elsewhere.
Hate crime incidents have increased notably since 2016, and higher education is not immune. A white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally at the University of Virginia in 2017 turned violent, making plain the potential for xenophobia to escalate to bodily harm or even death. The campus environment matters. Talented postdocs and graduate students will avoid the United States if they feel unwelcome and unsafe.
American colleges and universities travel the world to recruit undergraduate students. Institutions have generally left attracting graduate students and postdocs up to individual faculty members who sometimes take the availability of talent from abroad for granted. What is more, the working conditions for international graduate students and postdocs too often include poor mentorship, inadequate pay, and excessive work expectations. To sustain internationalization, professors and university administrators should take measures to recruit, welcome, and appropriately support early-career researchers from around the world.
What it Might Indicate for Global Research
Should the conditions for international science continue to deteriorate in the United States, the effects will extend beyond America's borders. US universities will have less capacity to produce high-level research if early-career talent is limited. Just so, a generation of scientists could face limited opportunities to learn and develop as researchers. The global science system is increasingly multi-polar, but no academic research system is yet a viable substitute for the United States.
International graduate students and postdocs are vital ties that stitch together the global science system. It seems likely that the United States will be less attractive to internationally mobile students and researchers. The strength of US universities may partly overcome tarnish to the country's reputation. Should the place of American universities in science networks diminish rapidly, the vitality of the global system could deteriorate. As with other domains, the stability of the global science system noticeably rests on the culture, politics, and policies of the United States. Receding internationalization among the ranks of science and engineering postdocs and graduate students could be a leading indicator for partial re-nationalization of academic science around the world.
Brendan Cantwell is an associate professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) at Michigan State University. His research addresses the political economy of higher education.