Retooling the U.S. Workforce: Sputnik or Jihad?

Oct. 6, 2005
Post-9/11 immigration policies threaten U.S. innovation.
By Agnes Shanley, Editor in Chief
Last month, Iran made headlines — and not just for its decision to continue with uranium enrichment. The Islamic Republic’s scientists have developed a process that uses biotechnology to purify uranium ore, reducing costs by 100- to 200-fold.The news underscored the nation’s focus on biotech R&D, carried out by 35 institutes and 42 universities, capable of training 653 Ph.D.s and 1,103 M.S.-level scientists per year. A small base is making products that already net hundreds of millions of dollars per year (for more information, see the United Nations summary on "Biotechnology in the Islamic Republic of Iran").Not bad for a nation which has had only 20 years to reinvent itself. Politics aside, Iran’s rapid industrial buildup shows what is possible when young people grow up viewing science and engineering as attractive career paths, and achievement in science as a way to improve not only their own standing, but their nation’s.Iran is a particularly dramatic case in point, considering that 40% of its population is under the age of 20, and that its economy took such a massive hit in the 1980s when war claimed the lives of over a half million of its citizens. It has also achieved these results despite sanctions blocking trade and diplomacy with the U.S. All over the world, countries are promoting the message that science and engineering are important, rewarding and satisfying careers. And they’re communicating that message far more effectively than the U.S. How else could South Korea, with one-sixth the U.S. population, graduate the same number of engineers and scientists as the U.S. each year?Thought leaders in the U.S. have been wringing their hands about this situation for years (see our October cover story, "Redefining the Workforce"), as more Baby Boomers retire. The Business Roundtable, a group of executives from various industries, has challenged the U.S. to double the number of students receiving B.S. and advanced degrees in science and engineering, to over 400,000, by 2015 (to access their white paper, click here).Can such dramatic changes be made in only 10 years? Perhaps, but “No Child Left Behind” and the very positive efforts now under way at many U.S. high schools and community colleges only scratch the surface. Such a transformation would require public outreach on a massive scale and would start even before children enter kindergarten. It would require nothing less than the “Sputnik” response seen in the U.S. in the 1950s, after the Soviet Union launched its space effort.Unfortunately, at a time when the U.S. hasn’t yet launched anything remotely like this science renaissance, it is opting, instead, for “Jihad.” Today’s immigration policies single out foreign students from predominantly Muslim countries who are studying potentially sensitive fields such as biotech. Many people who fit this description and studied in the U.S. 20 years ago, are now among the industry’s scientific and engineering elite.How many of them would have made it through Visa Condor or Visa Mantis? Established after one of the original World Trade Center bombers was found to have entered the U.S. on a flimsy student visa, programs that are designed to ensure that student visa applications are “legitimate" can delay approvals indefinitely.Since 9/11, foreign enrollments at many U.S. colleges have fallen by 30%. Colleges in the U.K., Australia, and Canada have been only too happy to pick up the slack.But current immigration policies may soon come back to haunt U.S. industries, according to a study by University of Colorado professor Keith Maskus and World Bank consultants (see related white paper). Even a 10% rise in foreign grad student enrollments would increase U.S. patent applications by over 3%, the researchers found. But enrollments are dropping, not rising. The U.S. risks losing its edge.It’s time to end the immigration jihad, and to take the drastic steps needed to awaken native interest in science and engineering. Not all U.S. high school students are Ferris Bueller on his day off, and many more would embrace these subjects if they were exposed to them, early and effectively, by motivated and well-paid teachers.In the meantime, if the task of retooling our whole educational system seems too daunting, consider Iran’s example. As Sputnik showed, we can always learn something from our political adversaries. Sometimes, they even become our allies.