green-cardIt was a freezing morning in Washington, DC, when President Obama was sworn in last month in a ceremony that is always a powerful moment in our democracy. But for researchers the fact that the President’s inaugural speech featured science so prominently soon brought a warm tingle to their toes. Elections can often end without decisive action. Indeed this last American election did not change the balance of power in any of the government branches, and only marginally altered the majorities in Congress. Yet the post-election flurry of bipartisan activity on immigration reform has been a pleasant surprise, especially because it involves scientists.

A bipartisan group of eight senators, led by John McCain (R-AZ) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) released a blueprint[1] for a comprehensive immigration overhaul which includes a proposal to award green cards to immigrants who have received a PhD or similar advanced degree in science, technology, engineering or math, the so-called STEM subjects, from an American university. The proposal recognizes the value to society and to the economy of highly skilled STEM graduates. This proposal recognizes that it does not make sense to attract the world’s best and brightest to our schools, train them at great expense in our privately and publicly supported universities and institutes, and then ship them home exactly when they are most valuable to our country’s scientific enterprises.

Senator Hatch (R-UT) led a group of senators who introduced a bill[2] roughly doubling the number of H-1B visas for highly skilled workers. Both academia and private industry rely heavily on this visa mechanism to fill jobs that require hiring foreign workers. President Obama also outlined his strong support for an overhaul of the immigration system in his inaugural and again in Las Vegas on January 29.[3]

The devil is in the details

Mission accomplished? Far from it. As usual, the devil is in the details. Without considering the political uncertainties—we are only at the beginning of what looks to be a long haul—we need to be careful about what kind of scientists will be included in these programs. The language being floated appears to be identical to that in a bill introduced last year by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), called the STEM Jobs Act. The bill excluded graduate degree holders in the biological and biomedical sciences.[4]

So will PhD diplomas in biomedical sciences come sans green cards? As an international society, ASCB strongly believes that the global flow of researchers and students is in everyone’s best interests. Over a quarter of our members work outside of the U.S., so we are watching the issue closely. Both the International Affairs Committee and the Public Policy Committee are working to ensure that our field benefits from these sensible reforms in immigration policy. Both committees, under the guidance of our Public Policy Director, will be taking ASCB’s case for including biological and biomedical graduates in immigration reform to Capitol Hill.

But wait—do we really need more scientists? A recent report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), known as the Tilghman report[5], indicates that only 26% of biomedical PhDs move into tenure-track positions within academia. So one would think that the field is saturated, with a strong imbalance between supply and demand. Therefore facilitating the import of biomedical scientists would be a recipe for disaster. This would seem to be the case if we consider only academia.

Down and out with a PhD?

When we look at unemployment rates for PhD holders overall, we find that unemployment is remarkably low. Disappointingly, official data are from 2008; however, I have received data from the Science & Engineering Workforce Program (SEWP) at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)[6] showing that in 2011 unemployment among PhDs in the biomedical area hovers around a miniscule 1.6%, compared with the whopping 8.9% of the general population. Interestingly, the involuntary out-of-field rate of employment is also very low, hovering around 1.2%.[7] These rates have been rather stable over the years. What has changed is the share of employment among academia, industry, and government, with a steady increase of PhDs employed mostly in industry and slightly in government, coupled with a decrease of those employed in academia, as shown in the chart below.

Biomedical PhDs in Academia

A 2012 study indicates that only 50% of PhD students in top-ranked American universities express a strong interest in academic research, even when asked to ignore actual job availability.[8] More than 40% give top marks to work in the private sector. If we tie it all together, we can understand that there are more opportunities for biomedical scientists beyond the canonical academic track. It is our training programs that have not caught up with reality. NIH is proposing several initiatives to fix the situation;[9] ASCB is carefully following the development of these plans.

The scientific employment picture is complex but perhaps not as bleak as many think. A graduate scientific education is incredibly valuable for our society. Being trained as a scientist is more than becoming familiar with Petri dishes and confocal microscopes; it essentially teaches students how to think, solve problems, and tackle complex issues. This is why the demand for scientists reaches well beyond academia. The skills that scientists possess are in great demand virtually everywhere in our modern economy where success rests an organization’s ability to coax added value from innovation.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that when multinational corporations decide where to establish R&D operations, their number one factor is proximity to human capital, i.e., proximity to universities and research centers.[10] Having scientists around is a good thing. It helps society. It helps the economy. For this reason, stapling green cards to the diplomas of newly minted biology and biomedical PhDs from overseas is a great idea. We should give them reasons and permission to stay in this country. The payback is to American health, wealth, creativity, and competitiveness.

What do you think?

  2. S.169, the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013.
  4. H.R.6429, the STEM Jobs Act of 2012.
  5. National Institutes of Health (2012). Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. Washington, DC.
  6. American Community Survey, SEWP group at NBER
  7. National Science Board (2012). Science and Engineering Indicators, 2012. National Science Foundation, 3-35.
  8. Sauermann H, Roach M (need year). Science PhD career preferences: levels, changes, and advisor encouragement. PLoS One 7(5): e36307.
  10. Thursby J, Thursby M (2006). Here or there? A survey of factors in multinational R&D location. Report to the Government-University-Industry research roundtable. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone
Stefano Bertuzzi

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi is the Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology. In this position he is responsible, with the ASCB Board, for strategic planning and all operations at the Society to serve the needs of its ~9,000 members and to promote the field of cellular biology and basic science. Email:

Comments are closed for this post.