Friday, June 24, 2011




The University of Southern California enrolls more foreign students as both undergraduates and advanced graduate students than any campus in America. Stanford, UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Berkeley are all among the top 15 in both categories, too.

Which means that foreign student tuition, often paid at premium out-of-state levels by temporary legal immigrants from places as varied as Saudi Arabia and China and Indonesia, is in some large part responsible for keeping California universities from collapse. An academic disaster would likely be imminent if prominent campuses had to depend purely on the state subsidies and federal grant money that also make up significant portions of their revenues.

So foreign students are good for many American universities, including plenty in California.

But are they good for America? That’s a question for continual debate as high technology and biomedical ventures become ever more common in countries like China, India and the Philippines, to name just a few.

It turns out that more than 60 percent of the Ph.D. level scientists who people those enterprises were trained in the United States. Now they’ve gone home and founded or taken jobs with companies that compete directly with American firms, including many based in the Silicon Valley, Orange County and other California hotbeds of new technologies.

At the same time, newly released figures from the National Science Foundation (NSF) show that foreigners account for 40 percent of all science and engineering Ph.D. holders now working in the United States. Which means that industries from electronics to construction to pharmaceuticals would be unable to function or develop new products if American universities were not training foreign grad students.

The same NSF report reveals that 62 percent of foreigners who got student visas and earned Ph.D.s in science at U.S. universities in 2002 (the latest year studied) were still in this country in 2007. Among foreigners getting advanced degrees in 1997, 60 percent were still here much of each year, 10 years later. The NSF used tax data to track who stayed and who did not.

Virtually no one disagrees with Michael Finn, an analyst at the U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., who says, “Our ability to continue to attract and keep foreign scientists and engineers is critical to…increase investment in science and technology.”

But there’s also another side, say some scientists who supervise foreign graduate and post-doctoral students.

“My main worry is over the 40 percent to 50 percent who go back to their home countries,” says one prominent researcher at the UCLA's medical school who has supervised M.D. and Ph.D. holders from a variety of countries. “They steal our way of thinking because there is little tradition of creative thinking in their own countries. There’s a real ripoff occurring.”

This scientist, who asked that his name not be used here because he needs to continue employing foreign professionals, worries that “Americans don’t understand the theft that goes on. The Chinese, for example, have no real higher educational system of their own, so they send people here to learn not only methods but also our ways of thinking. If even 40 percent return home, it’s a terrific investment for them because now they have people who can start biotech and electronic companies without having to educate them themselves. Sometimes I think they are way too wily for us, and we’re way too naïve to realize that we are being unpatriotic when we accept these guys.”

In short, this scientist contends, while elementary and secondary school students in many countries perform better than their American counterparts, those same students are accustomed to rote learning and not the kind of creativity that has long been an American hallmark.

What the NSF statistics also don’t show is that many of the foreign-born Ph.D.s listed as staying in the U.S. after they graduate also are working in their home countries.

Says a Stanford scientist, “I have had a technician in my lab for almost 20 years who leads a double life as a full professor in China, going back there four times a year for two or three weeks at a crack. He’s training them in our methods and ways of thinking, so they can compete with us.”

Which means the real need is for American schools and particularly those in California to motivate students (pay them?) to stick with academe long enough to get advanced degrees. If we fail to do that, there’s a good chance other countries will eventually be using our own methods and thought patterns to surpass America in the very fields where we excel most today.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

1 comment:

  1. Elementary and secondary school students in many countries perform better than their American counterparts and are accustomed to rote learning and not the kind of creativity that has long been an American hallmark.

    May be time to teach American students rote memorization in order to survive undergrad school. Worry about creativity in grad school.