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US aims to be competitive for science talent under Biden

Written by: Paul Basken, Simon Baker
Published on: 17 Nov 2020


Source: iStock

The election of Joe Biden as US president has raised expectations within the nation’s universities that they will become much more aggressive contenders for the world’s top scientific talent.

Mr Biden, whose wife, Jill, is a long-time community college teacher, has made clear his intent to trust academic expertise and to bolster government funding for higher education and research.

And by removing Donald Trump from the White House, Mr Biden also lowers the levels of official hostility that both students and researchers from abroad must consider when evaluating a move to a US university.

Much of the attention in that arena has involved the multibillion-dollar value of the students and ongoing decline during the Trump administration in the number of those who are willing to attend a US institution.

More quietly, however, the administration has been imposing regulatory shifts that make it difficult for US universities to hire and retain top scientific teaching and research talent.

One of the most important sets of rules involves the H-1B visa programme, which was designed to let companies hire foreign workers when they couldn’t find domestic applicants with the necessary skills.

Universities depend on H-1B visas to keep their faculty and staff competitive in a variety of research fields, especially in medicine, said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

“These are positions that are competitive” on a global basis, and US universities too often are blocked from hiring the world’s best candidates, said Dr Feldblum, a co-founder of her immigration-focused alliance of US college and university leaders.

That problem should ease soon after Mr Biden takes office in January, given his commitment to immediately start reversing the Trump administration’s antagonisms of foreigners, Dr Feldblum said.

“I never thought I’d have to actually say this,” said Anis Saleh, an immigration lawyer in Miami who represents companies that seek to hire foreign students after graduation, “but, yes, I think we’re going to go back to a time where we actually welcome foreign students who want to study science and technology – and actually try to contribute to this country when they graduate.”

Times Higher Education has previously reported that some academics were turning down job offers from US universities owing to concerns over the country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its draconian immigration policies.

A Biden presidency may also help to reverse the “highly defensive” diplomatic posture towards China that has risked the long-term standing of American higher education, a leading scholar of the country said.

Researchers of Chinese origin have faced particular scrutiny in the US under the Trump administration, amid allegations that they have been involved in intellectual property theft.

William Kirby, professor of China studies at Harvard University, said that Mr Biden “would reverse much of what you have seen towards this highly defensive posture internationally and not the least towards China”.

“US universities have become among the very best in the world because they seek the best talent from every part of the world including, and especially in recent years, from China,” he said.

“Anything that diminishes that flow of talent and that interchange…will lead to a parochialisation of American higher education that will in time have the threat of making us second rate.”

But the geopolitical “tensions” that have had driven this position would remain and it would be important for US universities to continue to “deepen” their cooperation with Chinese institutions of their own accord, Professor Kirby said.