Banning Chinese STEM Students Would Backfire on U.S.

Bloomberg Opinion , May 28, 2020

China hawks in Washington are looking for ways to weaken an increasingly aggressive geopolitical rival. Unfortunately, one of their shiny new ideas instead attacks a major U.S. strategic and cultural advantage: the excellence of American science.

Particularly at the graduate level, U.S. universities attract the brightest minds from all over the world, with China, the world’s most populous country, sending the most students. In the 2018-19 school year, more than 171,000 Chinese nationals were enrolled in science and engineering programs at U.S. universities, followed by 155,000 Indians. The coronavirus pandemic may change that in the short run, although a March survey by the Institute of International Education found that all but 0.4 percent of Chinese students were still in the U.S. Over the long run, immigration policy and public attitudes matter more.

Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, wants to end that influx. He and a GOP colleague, Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, introduced a bill on Thursday that would ban all visas admitting Chinese nationals to the U.S. for graduate or post-graduate study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America; they don’t need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America,” Cotton said last month, suggesting that the U.S. “take a very hard look at the visas we give the Chinese nationals to come to the United States to study, especially at the post-graduate level in advanced scientific and technological fields.” Those Chinese students, he argued, “go back to China to compete for our jobs, to take our business, and ultimately to steal our property and design weapons and other devices that can be used against the American people.”

Cotton imagines knowledge as a fixed bucket of stuff that gets poured into graduate students’ brains by American professors, allowing foreigners to then make off with precious know-how. But that’s not how science works. Graduate students don’t just master existing material. They’re critical to producing new knowledge. For every professor running a lab, there are a dozen or so graduate students and postdocs tackling specific problems. Many of those students come from abroad, with China leading the pack. Most want to stay after completing their studies.

In fact, 90 percent of Chinese STEM students are still in the U.S. a decade after receiving their degrees, according to the National Science Foundation, compared to 83 percent of Indians and 69 percent of Europeans. Although more Chinese have returned home in recent years, an analysis of publications by Chinese scholars finds that “for every returnee from the USA, 1.4 overseas Chinese scientists remain in the U.S.” In addition, significantly more established researchers move from China to the U.S. than vice versa.

“There’s more and more people going home, but there’s more and more people coming,” said Caroline Wagner, an international affairs professor at Ohio State University whose research analyzes patterns of international collaboration among scientists.

Just cutting off students isn’t enough for some immigration restrictionists. The administration of President Donald Trump is considering cutbacks on visas that allow students to work for a year or more after graduation. In an April radio interview, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf signaled a desire to make it harder for Chinese students “to stay here and work.”

Stopping China’s brain drain to the U.S. hardly seems like a smart strategic move. It may seem like an attack on China, but it’s self-destructive.

True, sending students to the U.S. for graduate training has strengthened Chinese science. But it’s done so because Chinese researchers have adopted the U.S. model, with peer review and independent journals supported by professional societies. “Their education system has been structured to look like the U.S. system,” Wagner observed. Although caution may be warranted in certain defense-related areas, it’s inaccurate and unfair to treat Chinese scientists simply as an extension of the Communist Party.

Even as their governments snipe at each other, Chinese and U.S. scientists, particularly those originally from China, continue to collaborate. Leaving out papers with Chinese co-authors, the number of science and engineering publications by U.S.-based scientists would have declined about 2 percent from 2014 to 2018, an analysis by Jenny J. Lee and John P. Haupt of the University of Arizona found. Instead, it increased by 2.6 percent.

More salient is the response to Covid-19. The Chinese and U.S. governments have been at loggerheads while scientists continued to cooperate. Despite the urgency that discourages long-distance teams, a preliminary analysis of “coronavirus” articles, including those awaiting peer review before publication, found that collaboration between U.S. and Chinese researchers increased in early 2020, compared to the two previous years. Team size shrank and people were more likely to work with researchers they already knew. But U.S.-China collaboration remained strong.

“The scientists are still working together,” said Wagner. “They’re passing data on, they’re talking to each other and they’re working together.” In a global crisis, the bonds forged by international study are priceless.

Today, the U.S. and China are at the center of global science, cross-fertilizing each other with new talent and ideas. China hawks imagine that decoupling would strengthen the U.S. by weakening China. Right now, however, the net flow of talent and knowledge goes eastward across the Pacific, from China to the U.S. The Chinese government has to strive mightily to get scientists to return home. The U.S. would be foolish to make that job easier.

Over the long run, decoupling Chinese science from the U.S. system could have another perverse effect. Along with peer review and independent journals, top scientists in China have adopted the English language. Although the vast majority of scientific articles by Chinese researchers are published in their own language, the best researchers publish in English. That makes their work easily accessible to Americans in their native tongue, an enormous advantage. Would the U.S. really be better off if its scientists had to learn Chinese?