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Winter/Spring 2006 Vol. 6 No. 1

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Photo by Cable Risdon Photography FROM THE PRESIDENT

National Academy of Engineering

Foreign-Born Researchers Are Key to U.S. Prosperity and Security

I would like to use this space to comment on what I see as a deeply troubling change in public attitude. Last fall I testified to the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee responsible for immigration issues. The subject was foreign-born students, especially in the physical sciences and engineering. I presented to the panel a few undisputed facts:

  • Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of Ph.D. scientists and engineers employed in the United States who were born abroad increased from 24 percent to 37 percent.
  • The current percentage of foreign-born doctoral students in engineering is close to 60 percent.
  • One-fourth of the engineering faculty at U.S. universities was born abroad.
  • Between 1990 and 2004, over one-third of the U.S. scientists who received Nobel Prizes were foreign born.

To me these facts suggest that the United States has been skimming the best and brightest from around the world -- and that much of the prosperity and security we enjoy today is the result of having access to that incredible talent pool.

But reading between the lines of their questions, it seemed that the majority of the subcommittee members present had a completely different take -- namely that every foreign student is a potential spy and, as one congressman explicitly said, the U.S. would be better off if there were no foreign students, since that would create room for all the U.S. students who want to be scientists and engineers.

I was stunned. What would our country be like today if this had been the prevailing attitude in years past? Fifty years ago many of our nation's scientific leaders came from Europe. They included famous names like Einstein, Fermi, and Teller -- without whom we might not have been the first to build the atomic bomb; von Braun -- without whom we would not have gone to the moon; and von Neumann -- without whom we might not be leaders in computing and information technology.

Today, it isn't just Europeans who contribute to our successes. Our leading scientific minds have names like Praveen Chaudhari, who was born in India and now directs the Brookhaven National Laboratory; C.N. Yang, a Nobel Prize winning physicist born in China; and Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health who was born in Algeria.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently gave a speech in which she pledged to make the United States more "welcoming" to citizens of other nations. I sincerely hope she succeeds. But I remain concerned that unwise policies regarding foreign-born students and scholars may irreparably damage our own science and engineering capacity. You can read my complete Sept. 15, 2005, testimony by visiting <>.

    WM. A. WULF
    National Academy of Engineering

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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences