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 rapid development of the capacity to make scientific and technical innovations is creating a new competitive environment. New ways of doing business and performing R&D take advantage of gains from new knowledge discovered anywhere, from increases in foreign economic development, and from expanding international migration of highly trained scientists and engineers.

Other chapters in Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 provide indirect indicators on the global S&E labor force. Production of new scientists and engineers through university degree programs is reported in chapter 2 (Higher Education in Science and Engineering). Indicators of R&D performed by the global S&E labor force are provided in chapter 4 (in sections on R&D expenditures and alliances), chapter 5 (in sections on publications output and international collaborations), and chapter 6 (in section on 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 doctoral degree labor force, and are even more prevalent 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.

Counts of Global S&E Labor Force

Few direct measures of the global S&E labor force exist; however, reports on the number of researchers in OECD member countries constitute one source of data. From 1993 to 2002, the number of researchers reported in OECD countries increased by 33.3% (a 4.2% average annual rate of increase) from approximately 2.5 million to 3.6 million (figure 3-51figure.). During this same period, approximately comparable U.S. estimates increased 38.3% (a 3.7% average annual rate of increase) from about 1.0 million to 1.3 million. Of course, many scientists and engineers are in non-OECD countries, and counts of these individuals are harder to obtain. Figure 3-52figure., based on estimates by Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee (Barro and Lee 2000), 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.

R&D Employment by Multinational Corporations

R&D is often done for companies that are based outside the country in which the researcher resides. Comparable data is available every 5 years on two aspects of this common phenomenon: the employment of R&D workers by U.S. firms at their foreign subsidiaries and by foreign firms at their subsidiaries in the United States.[16] This information is derived from the Bureau of Economic Analysis surveys that are discussed in more detail in chapter 4.

It is worthwhile noting that these measures capture only some parts of industrial R&D employment for global economic purposes. R&D is often done by a company in one country under contract to a company in another country, in arrangements that range from simple consulting work to strategic collaborations. R&D is also done to develop products and services for specific foreign markets. Neither work is captured by measures that only look at a company’s own subsidiaries. Nevertheless, R&D work by subsidiaries is important in itself, and may be an indicator of other international R&D activity.

R&D employment in the United States by U.S. subsidiaries of foreign firms rose from 105,100 in 1994 to a peak of 135,300 in 1999, then declined to 123,900 in 2004, for an 18% net increase over the decade (figure 3-53figure.). Over the same 10 years, R&D employment by U.S. firms at their foreign subsidiaries grew 75.8%, from 102,000 to 179,300. Most of the R&D employment at foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms is in Europe (63.5%), followed by Asia (17.8%) and Canada (10.3%).

Although the growth in R&D employment abroad by U.S. firms from 1994 to 2004 was fairly rapid (a 5.8% average annual growth rate), it does not represent a very large shift in the location of R&D employment by U.S. multinational corporations (MNCs). Over the same 10 years, domestic R&D employment of the same corporations increased by 31.0% (a 2.7% average annual rate) to 818,700 in 2004 (figure 3-54figure.). The proportion of the total R&D employment of U.S. MNCs that is abroad increased from 14.0% in 1994 to 18.0% in 2004.

The data in both figures 3-53 and 3-54figure. are consistent with two trends discussed in this chapter: rapid growth in S&T employment in the United States occurring at the same time as a general expansion of the ability to do S&T work throughout the world.

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 that "[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 Canada and Japan.")

The nature of high-skilled migration makes it difficult to count foreign-born scientists and engineers working in the United States. According to an estimate based on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, slightly over one million individuals in S&E occupations (26% of all college-educated workers in these occupations) were foreign born (table 3-25table.). The proportions ranged from 19% among bachelor’s degree holders to 41% at the doctorate level. However, these estimates are likely to be on the low side, because census occupational classifications miss many individuals who use S&E knowledge extensively in their jobs. For example, most university professors teaching in S&E fields are excluded from census S&E occupational counts, because they are classified as "postsecondary teacher." NSF 2003 SESTAT data, on the other hand, show 4.9 million college graduates in S&E occupations but 12.9 million who said they needed at least a bachelor’s level of S&E knowledge in their jobs.

NSF’s labor force surveys (SESTAT) gather information on education and workplace activities that can be used to identify the broader S&E labor force and that goes beyond the data in the decennial census or the American Community Survey. However, SESTAT data also have important limitations. SESTAT excludes individuals with foreign degrees who were not in the United States for the previous decennial census. As a result, SESTAT surveys miss foreign-educated S&E workers who have entered the country since the most recent census. Because high-skilled migrants often come to the United States for just a few years to pursue training or work, this can be a serious limitation. For example, the 1999 SESTAT survey provided an estimate of 15% foreign-born among college-educated individuals in S&E occupations; the corresponding census estimate is about 22% (table 3-25table.). In the 2000 census, about 43% of all college-educated, foreign-born individuals in S&E occupations (62% of doctorate holders) reported arriving in the United States after 1990. The 1999 NSF/SRS SESTAT estimates in table 3-25table. include these post-1990 arrivals only if their degrees are from a U.S. institution.

In contrast, 2003 SESTAT estimates of the foreign born in S&E occupations are quite close to estimates from the 2000 census (table 3-25table.). By level of degree, SESTAT estimates are only 1 to 2 percentage points different from comparable census estimates.

The 2003 SESTAT survey also provides an estimate of foreign-born S&E degree holders by field of degree (table 3-26table.). 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 born, ranging from 7% of individuals in sociology/anthropology to 27% of those 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 3-58figure. shows country-of-birth for the 2.2 million foreign-born S&E degree holders in the United States, 276,000 of whom have doctorates. Although no one source country dominates, 16% came from India and 11% came from China. Source countries for foreign-born holders of S&E doctorates are somewhat more concentrated, with China providing 22% and India 14%.

Although many foreign-born scientists and engineers in the United States first came to the United States to study, many other individuals came to the United States after receiving their university training abroad (table 3-27table.). This fact is important both to understanding the various ways that the United States recruits highly skilled workers from around the world, but also to understanding how these workers help to connect the United States to universities and research institutions around the world. (See sidebar "Foreign Scientists at the Max Planck Society" for a discussion of the importance of foreign scientists in Germany’s research system).

Across all levels of degree, 41% of the university-educated foreign born in the United States had their highest degree from a foreign educational institution and 55% had at least one foreign degree. At the highest level of education, 36% of foreign-born doctorate holders earned their doctorates from a foreign school.

The prevalence of foreign degrees among foreign-born S&E degree holders has been increasing over time (figure 3-60figure.). Among foreign-born S&E degree holders who entered the United States before 1980, only 20% of doctorate holders and 23% of bachelor’s degree holders had their highest degree from a foreign school. These percentages increase for more recent entry cohorts of immigrants. It should be noted that some portion of the increase in the most recent entry years reflects immigrants who entered during those years but have not yet had sufficient time to complete an American degree.

Citizenship and Visa Status of Foreign-Born Scientists and Engineers in the United States

The length of time for foreign scientists and engineers to earn U.S. citizenship affects both their decision to come to the United States and their subsequent decision to stay. As shown in figure 3-61figure., only about half of foreign S&E degree holders who entered the United States in 1991 and remained in 2003 had obtained citizenship. Citizenship status may particularly affect the supply of S&T talent available to segments of the U.S. economy that can hire only citizens: the federal government and private companies engaged in defense and other classified research.

The length of time before acquiring citizenship is not necessarily because of a lack of interest on the part of the foreign-born scientists and engineers. Consider a hypothetical case of a bachelor’s-level engineer who enters the United States with a student F visa to pursue a doctorate, who spends 6 years completing the doctorate, followed by 2 years in a postdoc position, and then is hired by an employer for a permanent job on a temporary work visa. The employer applies for a permanent work visa for their new worker, who receives it 2 years after starting work. Now, 10 years after entering the United States, a 5-year waiting period begins after receiving a permanent visa, before the engineer can apply for citizenship. The engineer applies soon after becoming eligible, and after 1 year, becomes a U.S. citizen, 16 years after entry to the United States.

The importance of temporary visas is also shown in figure 3-60figure.. Five years after entry to the United States, half of the foreign born with S&E degrees are still on temporary visas. Among those who have been in the United States for 10 years, 12% are on some form of temporary visa.

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 mostly requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. A wide variety of skilled workers use H-1B visas; those in computer occupations have represented at peak levels a little over half, and at lowest level a little less than one-quarter, of new H-1B visas issued.

Over two-thirds of the slightly more than 110,000 recipients of H-1B visas in 2006 are in S&T occupations (figure 3-62figure.). A large portion of the remainder are either in closely related fields such as medicine and health (5%) or have occupational titles that often mask the S&T expertise required, such as college and university education (8%) and various managerial, administrative, and professional and technical occupations (13%).

In 2006, 51% of new H-1B recipients were in computer-related occupations, including 48% in the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services occupational category of "occupations in systems analysis and programming," which includes many S&E occupations, such as computer scientist, and technician occupations, such as programmer. This actually represents an increase in recent years (from a low of 25% in 2002) in the proportion of new H-1B visas going to computer-related occupations. In 2006, 44% of those receiving new H-1B visas in computer-related occupations had master’s degrees, and a little more than 1% had doctoral degrees.

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. Universities and academic research institutions are exempt from this ceiling in their own hiring, and 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. However, even with these extra allowances, the H-1B visa ceiling constrains the use of foreign scientists and engineers by private industry for R&D located in the United States. It also makes it more difficult for foreign students to stay in the United States after their studies, because long delays in the visa process usually makes it impractical to be directly hired with a permanent work visa without first being a temporary worker. For FY 2008, the ceiling on H-1B visas was reached in the first day that applications were accepted.

Scientists and engineers may also receive temporary work visas through intracompany 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, which 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). State Department counts of visas issued for each of these categories are shown in table 3-28table.. For all types of visas, the actual number of individuals using them is less than the number issued for any number of reasons. For example, some individuals may have job offers from employers in more than one country, and choose not to foreclose any options until a visa is certain.

Characteristics of Workers Issued New H-1B Visas

Education Levels. In FY 2006, 57% of new H-1B visa recipients had advanced degrees, including 41% with master’s degrees, 5% with professional degree, and 11% with doctorates. This degree distribution differs by occupation, with 87% holding advanced degrees in math and physical sciences occupations (47% with doctorates) and 89% in life science occupations (61% with doctorates).

For those with advanced degrees, it may be possible to infer the proportion without prior U.S. education by examining the number seeking to be counted against the larger quota for those with advanced degrees from U.S. schools. In FY 2006, 59% of doctorate holders, 21% of professional degree holders, and 52% of master’s degree holders indicated on their H-1B applications that their degree was from a U.S. school. This both documents the use of the H-1B visa as a way for graduates of U.S. schools to continue their careers in the United States, and the importance of the H-1B in bringing the foreign educated to the United States.

H-1B Country of Citizenship. H1-B visa recipients have a diverse set of citizenships, with a large representation of Indian citizens overall and Chinese citizens among those holding doctorates (figures 3-63 and 3-64figure.). Across all recipients of new H-1B visas in FY 2006, 54% were Indian citizens, followed by 9% for China, and 3% each for Canada,[17] South Korea, and the Philippines. Among the 12,500 doctorate holders receiving new H-1B visas, 32% were Chinese citizens, followed by 13% for India, 7% for South Korea, 5% for Canada, and 3% each for Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Most doctorate holders coming from countries with large university systems had low rates of claiming a U.S. degree, for example, the United Kingdom (21%), Germany (28%), Canada (29%), France (30%), and Japan (31%). In contrast, 71% of doctorate holders from China and 59% of doctorate holders from India claimed advanced U.S. degrees on their visa applications.

H-1B Salaries. Salaries paid to new recipients of H-1B temporary work visas are shown in table 3-29table. by occupation group and level of degree. These starting salary figures, taken from final visa application forms sent to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, are different from, and generally higher than, H-1B salaries that have been previously reported based on applications from firms to the Department of Labor, which are filed much earlier in the H-1B process. The relatively low average salaries for doctorate holders in the life sciences may reflect the common use of H-1B visas to hire for relatively low-paid postdoc fellowships.

Visa Applications and Rejections for Students and Exchange Visitors

The F-1 and J-1 visas used by students and exchange visitors have recovered from the decline experienced after FY 2001 (which ended on 30 September 2001). In FY 2006, student visa applications for the first time exceeded the previous 2001 high, and visa-rejection rates were below those experienced by applicants in FY 2001 (20.1% versus 22.9% rejections in 2001) (table 3-30table.). Relatively few potential students are formally rejected because of security issues, but U.S. law also requires student visa applicants to prove that they are unlikely to want to stay in the United States after the completion of their studies. In addition to reductions in the rejection rate, applications for student visas are likely to have been favorably affected by the rapid growth of demand for university education elsewhere in the world, by rising incomes in East and South Asia, and by the declines in the value of the U.S. dollar (which reduces the cost of a U.S. education for foreign students).

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 (2007) of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, 65% of 2000 U.S. S&E doctoral degree recipients with temporary visas remained in the United States in 2005. This is up from a 61% 5-year stay rate found in 2003 (figure 3-65figure.). The 5-year stay rate has been increasing for S&E doctorate recipients from a wide number of countries.

Highly Skilled Migrants in OECD Countries

Estimates of international migrants residing in OECD countries were made by Docquier and Marfouk (2004) using data from the various national censuses. Based on their data, figure 3-66figure. shows the 11 countries with the largest number of citizens found residing abroad 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 the 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.


[16] Bureau of Economic Analysis R&D employment data are counts of full-time and part-time employees that devote the majority of their time to R&D activities.

[17] Although Canadians with university degrees can use the easier-to-obtain TN visa to work in the United States, many prefer to seek H-1Bs, perhaps in part because TN visa holders are not permitted to apply for permanent resident ("green card") status. There is no preferential path to a permanent work visa for H-1B holders; they are not forbidden to seek a green card.

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