Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Labor Force

Global S&E Labor Force and the United States

"There is no national science just as there is no national multiplication table" (Anton Chekhov 1860–1904).

Science is a global enterprise. The common laws of nature cross political boundaries, and the international movement of people and knowledge made science global long before "globalization" became a label for the increasing interconnections among the world's economies. The United States (and other countries as well) gains from new knowledge discovered abroad and from increases in foreign economic development. U.S. industry also increasingly relies on R&D performed abroad. The nation's international economic competitiveness, however, depends on the U.S. labor force's innovation and productivity.

Other chapters in Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 provide indirect indicators on the global labor force. Production of new scientists and engineers through university degree programs is reported in chapter 2. Indicators of R&D performed by the global S&E labor force are provided in chapter 4 (R&D expenditures and alliances), chapter 5 (publications output and international collaborations), and chapter 6 (patenting activity).

Section Overview

Although the number of researchers employed in the United States has continued to grow faster than the growth of the general workforce, this is still a third less than the growth rate for researchers across all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Foreign-born scientists in the United States are more than a quarter, and possibly more than a third, of the S&E doctorate degree labor force, and are even more important in many physical science, engineering, and computer fields. Along with the increases in graduate education for domestic and foreign students elsewhere in the world (as discussed in chapter 2), national governments and private industry have increased their efforts to recruit the best talent from wherever it comes. As a result, the United States is becoming less dominant as a destination for migrating scientists and engineers.

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Counts of the Global S&E Labor Force

Few direct measures of the global S&E labor force exist. Reports on the number of researchers in OECD member countries constitute one source of data. From 1993 to 1999, the number of researchers reported in OECD countries increased by 33.9% (a 5.0% average annual rate of increase) from approximately 2.46 million to 3.30 million (figure 3-36 figure.). During this same period, comparable U.S. estimates increased 30.7% (a 4.6% average annual rate of increase) from approximately 965,000 to 1.26 million. Of course, non-OECD countries also have scientists and engineers. Figure 3-37 figure., based on estimates by Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee, shows the global distribution of tertiary education graduates (roughly equivalent in U.S. terms to individuals who have earned at least technical school or associate's degrees and also including all degrees up to doctorate) in 2000, or the most recently available data. About one-fourth of the tertiary graduates in the labor force were in the United States. However, the next three largest countries in terms of tertiary education are China, India, and Russia, which are all non-OECD members.

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Migration to the United States

Migration of skilled S&E workers across borders is increasingly seen as a major determinant of the quality and flexibility of the labor force in most industrial countries. The knowledge of scientists and engineers can be transferred across national borders more easily than many other skills. Additionally, cutting-edge research and technology inevitably create unique sets of skills and knowledge that can be transferred through the physical movement of people. The United States has benefited, and continues to benefit, from this international flow of knowledge and personnel (see Regets 2001 for a general discussion of high-skilled migration). However, competition for skilled labor continues to increase. Many countries have both increased their research investments and also made high-skilled migration an important part of national economic strategies. An NSB taskforce noted "[g]lobal competition for S&E talent is intensifying, such that the United States may not be able to rely on the international S&E labor market to fill unmet skill needs" (NSB 2003). (See sidebar, "High-Skill Migration to Japan.")

The nature of high-skilled migration makes it difficult to count foreign-born scientists and engineers working in the United States. Individuals may come for just a few years to pursue training or to work in a particular job. In addition to making their measure dependent on the timing of surveys, many of these short- to medium-term migrants will have all foreign degrees and not be included at all in some surveys.

An indication of the scope of the problems with under-counting of foreign-born scientists and engineers comes from a comparison of SESTAT occupational data with approximately comparable data from the 2000 Census. Using the 5% Public-Use Microdata Sample (PUMS), it is possible to compare the proportion of foreign-born individuals among those with S&E occupations other than postsecondary teacher (table 3-19 table.). According to the 1999 SESTAT, 15.0% of college graduates in S&E occupations are foreign born, compared with the 22.4% recorded by the 2000 Census. A particularly noteworthy difference appears in the proportion of foreign-born individuals among those with doctorate degrees; this proportion increases from 28.7% in the 1999 SESTAT to 37.6% in the 2000 Census. The large increases shown by 2000 Census data may in part reflect recent arrivals to the United States, because 42.5% of all college-educated foreign born in these S&E occupations reported arriving in the United States after 1990. Among foreign-born doctorate degree holders in S&E occupations, 62.4% reported arriving in the United States after 1990. The 1999 NSF/SRS estimates in table 3-19 table. include these post-1990 arrivals only if their degrees are from a U.S. institution.

New NSF estimates of the foreign born in S&E occupations are also shown in table 3-19 table. (table 3-20 table. shows NSF estimates of foreign born by field of degree, regardless of occupation). The 2003 SESTAT estimates provide an important update over 1999 SESTAT estimates because it includes those with degrees from foreign educational institutions if they were present in the United States in April 2000, at the time of the Decennial Census (new migrants with only foreign degrees who have entered the United States since April 2000 are not included). The estimate of 35.6% of doctorate holders in S&E occupations being foreign born is consistent with an increased coverage of foreign degrees. An unresolved mystery is why the SESTAT proportion of foreign-born doctorate degree holders in S&E occupations is less than either the 2000 Census or the 39.5% found on the 2003 American Community Survey. One possibility is that NSF's data, through a series of detailed questions, may more accurately screen out foreign degrees that are not really doctorate equivalents. However, it is also possible that the 2003 SESTAT, which is based in part on a sample of individuals on the 2000 Census, does not detect foreign doctorate degree holders staying in the United States for just a few years to pursue postdocs and other research opportunities while on temporary visas.

By field of degree, in the 2003 SESTAT data, the foreign born are over half of all holders of doctorates in engineering (including 57% of doctorate holders in electrical engineering) and in computer science. Only in the geosciences and the social sciences are the foreign born significantly less than a third of doctorate holders in S&E fields. At the bachelor's degree level, 15% of S&E degree holders were foreign bor—nranging from 7% of bachelor's degree holders in sociology/anthropology to 27% of bachelor's degree holders in physics/astronomy and 28% in electrical engineering.

Origins of S&E Immigrants

Immigrant scientists and engineers come from a broad range of countries. Figure 3-39 figure. shows country of birth for the 3.1 million foreign-born S&E degree holders in the United States, 300,000 of whom have doctorates. Although no one source country dominates, 14% came from India and 9% came from China. Source countries for foreign-born holders of S&E doctorates are somewhat more concentrated, with China providing 21% and India 14%.

Temporary Work Visas

In recent years, policy discussion has focused on the use of various forms of temporary work visas by foreign-born scientists. Many newspaper and magazine stories have been written about the H-1B visa program, which provides visas for up to 6 years for individuals to work in occupations requiring at least a bachelor's degree (or to work as fashion models). Although a common misperception exists that only IT workers may use these visas, a wide variety of skilled workers actually use H-1B visas.

Exact occupational information on H-1B visas issued is not available. Some occupational data on H-1B admissions in 2001, which count individuals who reenter the United States multiple times, does exist. This information can provide an approximate guide to the occupational distribution of individuals on H-1B visas. Individuals working in computer-related positions accounted for more than half (57.8%) of H-1B admissions, and those working in architecture and engineering constituted another 12.2%. Another 4.6% indicated other scientific and technical occupations, and the 8.7% of those in categories such as education and medicine also may include many with S&E backgrounds (table 3-21 table.). It is possible that the occupational distribution of H-1B visas may now be less computer related—both because of the downturn in the computer industry and changes made in the visa program since 2001.

An important change to the H-1B visa program took effect on October 1, 2003: the annual ceiling on admissions fell from 195,000 to 65,000 because of the expiration of legislation that had allowed the additional visas. In FY 2005, this ceiling was reached in the first day of the fiscal year. Although universities and academic research institutions are exempt from this ceiling, this change is likely to constrain the use of foreign scientists and engineers by private industry for any R&D located in the United States. In 2005, an additional 20,000 exemptions from the H-1B quotas were added for students receiving master's degrees or doctorates from U.S. schools.

Scientists and engineers may also receive temporary work visas through intra-company transfer visas (L-1 visas), high-skilled worker visas under the North American Free Trade Agreement (TN-1 visas, a program previously primarily for Canadians, granted full access for Mexican professionals in 2004), work visas for individuals with outstanding abilities (O-1 visas), and several smaller programs. In addition, temporary visas are used by researchers who may also be students (F-1 and J-1 visas) or postdocs, and by visiting scientists (mostly J-1 visas but often H-1B visas or other categories). Counts of visas issued for each of these categories are shown in table 3-22 table.. The annual quota of H-1B visas is controlled through issuance of visas to workers rather than through applications from companies. (See sidebar, "Visas for Scientists and Engineers.")

Stay Rates for U. S. Doctoral Degree Recipients With Temporary Visas

How many foreign students who receive S&E doctorates from U.S. schools remain in the United States? According to a report by Michael Finn (2003 and unpublished 2005 data) of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, 61% of 1998 U.S. S&E doctoral degree recipients with temporary visas remained in the United States in 2003. This is up from a 56% 5-year stay rate found in 2001. The number of foreign students staying after obtaining their doctorates implies that between 4,500 and 5,000 foreign students remain from each annual cohort of new S&E doctorates in all fields. Stay rates differ by field of degree, ranging from only 36% in economics to 70% in computer and electrical engineering in 2003 (table 3-24 table.).

The small increase in 5-year stay rates between 2001 and 2003 may reflect improvements in labor market conditions at the time each cohort entered the U.S. labor force. This increase occurred despite a small decline in the 5-year stay rate for Chinese students receiving U.S. S&E doctorates—from 96% to 90%.

Within each discipline, the stay rate remained mostly stable for the 1998 graduation cohort between 1999 and 2003. Quite possibly, however, some of this stability came from individuals in this cohort who reentered the United States and thus replaced others in the same graduation cohort who left.

Highly Skilled Migrants in OECD Countries

Estimates of international migrants residing in OECD countries were made by Docquier and Marfouk (2004) using estimates from the various national censuses. Based on their data, figure 3-41 figure. shows the 11 countries with the largest number of citizens found residing in OECD countries in 2000. With 1.4 million tertiary-educated citizens in other OECD countries, the United Kingdom has the largest "high-skilled diaspora." Although originally used to describe much less voluntary dispersals of population in history, high-skilled diaspora is increasingly used to describe networks of contact and information flow that form among the internationally mobile portion of a country's nationals. These networks can provide advantages for a country that help to mitigate any loss of human capital through migration.

The United States, ranking number 11 with 448,000 tertiary-educated citizens in other OECD countries, has a fairly small high-skilled diaspora compared with its population, and particularly compared with its number of educated workers.

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National Science Board.