Remarks by Esther Brimmer to a Workshop Convened by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine

The following is a speech delivered to a workshop entitled "Openness, International Engagement, and the Federally Funded Science and Technology Research Enterprise" held on Monday, November 14, 2022.

Greetings, my name is Esther Brimmer and I serve as the executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. It is my pleasure today to address this workshop on the subject of international STEM talent and U.S. competitiveness in research.

My remarks today are informed by six years at the helm of NAFSA, the world’s largest association of international educators, my experience as a presidential appointee on the National Security Education Board within the Department of Defense, and service at the U.S. Department of State and in academia.

To begin, I’d like to conjure Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. These icons of America’s birth were founders of two of our great universities. Franklin launched a college that eventually would become the University of Pennsylvania and Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. He also served as the first Secretary of State. Both dedicated their lives to the birth, growth, well-being, and independence of the United States. And while students today are demanding a reckoning with the complicated legacies of these men, we can wholeheartedly admire and applaud their deep understanding that education and knowledge were fundamental to the life and growth and security of the nation.  

I contend that knowledge and research are fundamental to the vitality and the security of the United States. From our very founding, to modern day, whether it be the industrial revolution or the information age, our country has succeeded when it has fostered the application of education, research, and innovation to civic life. Whether it be the satellite over our heads that informs the map on your phone, or the vaccines that save lives every day, scientific research is crucial to the security of our society. 

I would also contend that, for generations, the participation of the top minds from all over the globe in our nation’s open, federally-funded scientific research system has long been, and still is, foundational to U.S. economic security, health of our citizenry, and defense of the nation. 

International students on U.S. campuses have, for decades, advanced U.S. foreign policy, diplomacy and homeland security goals while also enriching the worldview of their domestic classmates and making important contributions to the local community and economy. In fact, just today NAFSA released new data that quantifies the annual economic activity and jobs supported by international students, as it has for more than twenty years. Our signature analysis shows that international students contributed $33.8 billion and supported more than 335,000 jobs during the 2021-2022 school year. 

They have also been a driving force behind U.S. leadership in research and innovation.

Consider that since 2000, more than half of America’s start-up companies valued at $1 billion or more have been founded or co-founded by immigrants. One quarter of these so-called unicorn companies have a founder who first came to the U.S. as an international student and almost 80% of them have an immigrant founder or an immigrant in a key leadership role, such as CEO or vice president of engineering. The co-founder of Moderna, for example, began his career as an international student in the United States

The presence of STEM-focused international students, graduates, and scholars in the U.S. classroom, communities and workforce is especially important considering that right now China produces four times as many bachelor’s students and twice as many graduate and PhD students in STEM than the United States each year.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately half of the one million international students in this country are enrolled in STEM programs. And even though they make up only 5% of the total student population, international students earned nearly half of all master’s and doctoral STEM degrees awarded in 2019, a total of 117,000 degrees.

We have good reason to believe a greater number of international students would like to follow their dream to the United States. estimates that an additional 100,000 international student graduates of U.S. colleges and universities each year would like to stay and work permanently in the U.S. Enabling them to do so could add up to $233 billion to the U.S. economy this decade and reduce STEM-related talent shortages by about a quarter.

The current reality, however, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, is that a mere 10 to 20 percent of international student graduates remain in the U.S. to work after they complete their studies. This despite the fact that for every four international student graduates who earn a master’s degree in the U.S., the equivalent of one skilled worker is added to the U.S. economy.

How can we explain this leaky pipeline? International students must overcome significant hurdles to even set foot on a U.S. campus, let alone stay after graduation to work, conduct research, or start a business.

Prospective international students must navigate an antiquated and cumbersome U.S. immigration system. They must convincingly argue they have no intention of living or working in this country after graduation. The scarcity of green cards available to them should they change their mind is a real deterrent to coming here in the first place. 

Thus, it is no surprise then that the total number of new international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities is on a downward trend and the U.S. share of the international student market has dropped by eight percent since 2001.

Meanwhile, our competitor countries, namely the United Kingdom and Canada have surged ahead with welcoming visa and immigration policies and have seen double-digit growth in international student enrollment as a result. 

The U.K., for example, reached its goal of hosting 600,000 international students by the year 2030 a full decade early by creating more post-study work opportunities and establishing welcoming immigration policies for global research talent. Similarly, Canada surpassed its milestone of attracting 450,000 international students by 2022 three years early by adopting expedited visa processing for certain qualifying students, offering post-study work visas that can last up to three years, and making it easier for international students to immigrate.

Given these proactive strategies and the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mobility of students, NAFSA has long argued that the U.S. should adopt a national strategy for international education that establishes targets, policies, and funds programs to increase the number and diversity of international students at U.S. higher education institutions; increase the number and diversity of American students participating in study abroad programs; and promote efforts to internationalize U.S. campuses. 

We also believe firmly that U.S. visa and immigration policy must be updated and modified to provide the predictability that is essential to attracting and retaining international students and scholars. 

This includes allowing international student visa applicants to express interest in remaining in the United States after graduation, permitting smoother access to work opportunities for skilled post-graduates from STEM fields and non-STEM fields alike, and improving the visa application process. We were disappointed these provisions were not included in the CHIPS and Science legislation but will continue to push for this language to be added to any must-pass legislation in this Congress or in the next. 

Such policy changes were reinforced by a recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center that found that clear pathways to green cards for international students would “allow the U.S. to continue attracting and retaining top talent, which is essential to maintaining competitiveness in the modern economy.”

Similar messages have been conveyed by a wide variety of sources in recent months, including senior H.R. directors at several major semiconductor companies, National Defense Magazine, and the Council on Foreign Relations. The need to attract and retain the world’s best talent was also highlighted as a priority in the President’s National Security Strategy released last month. 

We heartily agree and encourage you to add your voice to the growing chorus.

Of course, we take very seriously the national security threats posed by international actors to federally-funded research and commend the important steps undertaken by academia and the U.S. government to protect sensitive research. U.S. research universities, for example, have developed, implemented, and enhanced communications, training, and protocols to protect the research they conduct. 

We also applaud the decision by the Justice Department earlier this year to end the “China Initiative.” First launched in 2018 to counter theft of U.S. intellectual property by China, it instead created a climate of fear among Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. The decision by the Justice Department to drop the branding and shift to a broader approach targeting various nation-state threats was a welcome one.

The U.S. Congress has also been very active on this topic, regularly including provisions within the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on which the Senate will resume debate shortly going as far back as 2018 to protect academic research from undue foreign influence and other security threats. This includes establishing the National Science and Technology Council Joint Committee on the Research Environment (or JCORE) Subcommittee on Research Security, mandating disclosure of funding sources in applications for federal research, and restricting Department of Defense funds from being used by institutions that host a Confucius Institute. More recently, several research security measures relating to Department of Energy and National Science Foundation funding were included in the CHIPS and Science Act I referenced earlier. 

Let me close by adding that any additional policies or protocols that address security risks within U.S. higher education should be narrowly defined--targeting the type of research or the specific behavior in question--rather than tied to an individual’s nationality, religion, or country of origin. A more thoughtful approach to ensuring our national security should enable more contact, not less with the countries and regions that are impacting today’s geopolitical realities. This will enable us to better understand the world’s more complicated, adversarial societies, their languages, their customs and they, us.