International students comprise an essential part of the fabric of US colleges.
Their contributions to ongoing campus dialogues, research initiatives, and cross-cultural exchange have improved not only the caliber, but also the relevance of American universities on a global scale. Yet, through a combination of legal challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment of international students in the United States declined by 15% from 2020 to 2021.
This figure was a key motivating factor behind one of the panels at The Evolving Role of Universities in the American Innovation System conference, hosted by The Center for Innovation Policy at Duke Law School on March 3 and 4. The panel, titled “Immigration Policy and the Availability and Cultivation of Talent to Support U.S. Universities’ Missions,” explored the importance of effective immigration policy in fostering a culture of innovation in the United States. Featuring four thought leaders on the intersection of immigration policy and international students, the panel was moderated by Stuart Benjamin, JD, from Duke Law School.
Panelist Esther Brimmer, DPhil. stressed the importance of generating a coordinated national strategy for attracting international students, with the goal of creating an attractive environment for scientific leadership. Scientific fields are the focus because, while international students make up only 5% of total enrollment at US universities, over half of them are employed in STEM fields. Furthermore, in the 2016-2017 Academic Year, 54% of master’s degrees and 44% of doctorate degrees in STEM fields were issued to international students, two figures that have been on the rise in the past decades.
Recent legislation from the Biden-Harris Administration capitalized on the rising relevance of international STEM students by expanding opportunities for study and bolstering legal protection, a move backed strongly by Brimmer and other immigration policy scholars.
Richard Freeman, PhD, followed up Brummer’s points by analyzing the impact of international students on a recent scientific breakthrough: the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Working off of a thesis that the US university serves as a critical global hub for science, technology, and innovation, Freeman focused his analysis on the C-suites, inventors, and clinical trial authors as it pertained to major pharmaceutical firms Moderna, Novavax, Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca/Oxford. Freeman found that US university education was a uniting factor in the backgrounds of most of the leaders and innovators within the vaccine development processes, irrespective of whether they were born in the United States. To propagate the vast US innovation system, Freeman alluded, it was imperative that policymakers develop the necessary frameworks to maintain a pool of international talent.
Caroline Wagner, PhD, proceeded to expound upon the critical policy frameworks necessary for enhancing international collaboration at US research universities. She discussed how liberal democracies such as the United States ought to shift their policies in terms of focus, funding, and approach towards research in order to keep pace with a more diffuse and fast-growing international STEM ecosystem. Therefore, research at the university level needed to be better aligned with US national interests on an economic and political level, claimed Wagner. Working off of this claim, the focus of Wagner’s current collaborative project with the Berkeley Research Group Institute is to develop and advise a more deliberate science and technology policy that would balance innovation with the needs of global security.
Dany Bahar, PhD, rounded out the panel with a discussion of the intersection between migration and innovation, with a specific focus on inventions. Through his research, Bahar identified a class of individuals whom he dubbed Global Mobile Inventors, scholars and inventors who patent multiple novel technologies in a multitude of different countries. As these individuals migrate across borders, they utilize their technical expertise to positively contribute to the economies of each country within which they reside. Upon mapping patent data against migration reform trends, Bahar found that negative migration reforms often stop innovative inventors from moving, leading to a loss of innovation and a lowering of economic output.
Bahar asserted, in no uncertain terms, that America needs migrants now more than ever before. This powerful statement was met with nods of approval from each panelist, an empowering example of consensus-building from leaders working within a decidedly imperfect university system. However, it was the panelists’ common recognition of institutional shortcomings that laid the groundwork for an especially fruitful discussion, one that will likely play out on the national and international political stage for years to come.