It was a rude awakening for foreign scientista and scholars with a dream of working in America.
Mehmet Ali Icbay had just been shortlisted for a professorship in North Dakota. Icbay earned his Ph.D. at Ohio State and did postdoctoral work at Southern Illinois, and he wanted to return to America, where he has many friends and a professional network. His native Turkey has also become a more difficult place in recent years for academics. “There is opportunity in the U.S.,” he told me.
But instead of opportunity, there was only disappointment. In late June, President Trump released an executive order
suspending the issuance of temporary work visas, such as H1-Bs, saying that the action was necessary to preserve jobs for Americans.
Icbay canceled his interview. The United States, at least for now, was out of reach.
The presidential order is a blow for individuals like Icbay. But many fear it could also be detrimental to American research and education.
I was on NPR’s excellent science podcast Short Wave
to talk about the impact of the visa restrictions.]
Colleges use H1-Bs to hire foreign-born professors, researchers, and postdocs. For labs and tech firms, it’s an important recruitment tool, too — about a third of the scientists and engineers in the U.S. were born outside the country. Although critics worry that Americans are being displaced, most of these positions require specialized training and advanced education.
If the U.S. is off-limits, those talented workers could decide to go elsewhere. Some already have — since 2017, the number of successful applications from American residents to Canada’s main skilled-immigration program have increased by 75 percent, according to an analysis
by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. The growth was due entirely to non-citizens, many of them American-educated.
The sense that the nation’s doors are shut could also cause leaks earlier in the talent pipeline. Will international students still want to invest time in an American education or will they choose to study in a place where they can make connections and gain experience that could lead to a lasting career?
Siddharth Mathur, who grew up in an Indian family in the Philippines, first came to the U.S. as an undergraduate at Oberlin. In all, he’s spent nearly a dozen years here and was planning to take a postdoctoral position in math at the University of Arizona when the presidential order came down. Now, he will stay in Germany, where he has a research appointment, for another year.
Mathur said he always tried to be clear-eyed about the future, understanding there was no guarantee that he would find a tenure-track job at an American college. Still, he said, “I put roots down in the U.S.”
Universities can ill-afford to lose students like Mathur — more than half of the doctorates awarded in math, computer science, and engineering go to student-visa holders, and the majority of graduates stay in U.S., at least for their first job.
The executive order, which is being challenged in court, is temporary; it is set to expire at the end of the year, although it could be extended. But the message it sends to students and scholars around the world could be lasting.
As for Icbay, he has put the idea of returning to America on hold. “The order gives a subtle warning to the non-citizen/international scientists to stay away from the U.S. higher education institutions,” he wrote in an email to me. “Although you are a scientist and can contribute to the U.S. development, you cannot do that any more because you are from another country.”
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