The Importance of Foreign-born Scientists and Engineers to the
Security of The United States
William A. Wulf, Ph.D.
National Academy of Engineering
The National Academies
Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims
Committee on the Judiciary
U.S. House of Representatives
The Hearing on "Sources and Methods of Foreign Nationals Engaged in Economic and Military Espionage."
15 September 2005
Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. My name is William Wulf and I am on leave from the University of Virginia to serve as President of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Founded in 1964, the NAE provides engineering leadership in service to the nation. It operates under the same congressional act of incorporation that established the National Academy of Sciences, signed in 1863 by President Lincoln. Under this charter the NAE is directed "whenever called upon by any department or agency of the government, to investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art [technology].” I am pleased to come to this hearing today to remind all members of the committee of the important contributions foreign-born scholars, scientists, and engineers have made and continue to make to this country. Foreign-born scientists and engineers have come to the United States, stayed in large numbers, and we are more prosperous and more secure, in large part, because of them!
Before proceeding, perhaps I should note that national security is not an unfamiliar subject to me. I have carried a TS/SCI clearance for decades, have been a member of the Air Force Science Advisory Board (AFSAB), and an advisor to DoD on many subjects. When I founded a company in the early 80’s, it was based on DoD funded university research, and our principal product was defense-related software. My wife carries more clearances than I, was also an member of the AFSAB, has been a member of the Defense Science Board (DSB) for two decades – except for five years when she served in the Pentagon as the Director of Defense Research and Engineering. I believe it is fair to say that both my wife and I are not only sensitive to national security issues, but for decades have devoted our energies to it. We understand the need to protect certain information, and we value the people who provide us that security and would do nothing that jeopardized them or their mission.
Although I probably don’t need to say it to the committee, I want to stress the centrality of our technological prowess to our security. It is said that success has many parents – one example of this is the many explanations for why we won the cold war. One component of that victory however, was that the Warsaw Pact was never tempted to start a conventional (non nuclear) war even though they had a significant numerical advantage in both troops and armament. The reason was that we offset their numerical advantage with superior technology. Our troops could locate, identify, target and destroy a potential attacker with far greater accuracy, speed, and lethality. MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) may have prevented a nuclear war, but our “offset strategy” using superior technology was a major component of preventing a conventional one.
It is for this very reason that I am convinced that security – real security – comes from a proper balance of keeping out those that would do us harm and welcoming those that will do us good. Throughout the last century, our great successes in creating both wealth and military ascendancy have been due in large part to the fact that we welcomed the best scientists and engineers from all over the world. No other country did that, and nowhere else has the genius for discovery and innovation flourished in the way it has here. I am deeply concerned that our policy reactions to 9/11 have tipped that balance in a way that is not in the long term interests of the nation’s security.
Fifty years ago many of our scientific leaders came from Europe. There are the famous names like Einstein, Fermi, and Teller (without whom we might not have been the first to build the atomic bomb), von Braun (without whom we would not be ascendant in rockets and space), and von Neumann (without whom we might not be leaders in computing and information technology). But there are dozens more names, like Bethe and Gödel, that may not be known to the general public, but that formed the backbone of American science and engineering – plus an enormous number of journeymen scientists and engineers whose individual contributions will never be celebrated, but without whom the United States would be neither as prosperous nor as secure as it is.
Today, it isn’t just Europeans that contribute to our prosperity and security; the names are like those of Praveen Chaudhary (now director of Brookhaven National Lab), Venkatesh Narayanamurti (dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard), C.N. Yang, (Nobel Laureate physicist, from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton), Katepalli Sreenivasan, (recent director of the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at the University of Maryland); and Elias Zerhouni (who was born in Algeria and now is the director of the National Institutes of Health).
Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of Ph.D. scientists and engineers employed in the United States who were born abroad has increased from 24% to 37%. The current percentage of Ph.D. physicists is about 45%; for engineers, the figure is over 50%. One fourth of the engineering faculty members at U.S. universities were born abroad. Between 1990 and 2004, over one third of Nobel Prizes in the United States were awarded to foreign-born scientists. One third of all U.S. Ph.D.s in science and engineering are now awarded to foreign born graduate students. We have been skimming the best and brightest minds from across the globe, and prospering because of it; we need these new Americans even more now as other countries become more technologically capable.
Top-notch students and teachers from abroad help make U.S. colleges and universities global centers of excellence and diversity. Highly skilled workers and world-class business leaders who come to work with or for U.S.-based companies help keep our economy growing – an amazing fraction of new Silicon Valley start-up companies are headed by individuals born abroad, for example.
It’s a mistake to think that all important defense technologies originate in the United States and hence that the problem is simply how to keep our technology from being stolen by others. We talk proudly about the role of MIT’s “Rad Lab” in developing radar in WW II – but the crucial technology came from the United Kingdom. At the end of WW II the United States was a distant third in the development of jet engines, behind Germany and the Soviet Union. The World Wide Web was invented at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) located in Switzerland -- not in the United States. Again, real security depends on a careful balance – in this case a balance of openness and secrecy. Walling ourselves off from the otherwise open international exchange of basic scientific information is a recipe for being surprised and disadvantaged.
To be sure, 9/11 and globalization have changed the balance point. There is good reason to fundamentally rethink our policies. However, several recent policy changes, related to visas, treatment of international visitors, deemed exports, and so on, have had a chilling effect. Enrollment of international students in U.S. colleges and universities has declined. Scientists have chosen to hold conferences in other countries. U.S. businesses have had to shift critical meetings to locations outside this country. In the meantime, foreign companies, universities and governments are marketing themselves as friendlier places to do business or get an education. In the race to attract top international talent, we are losing ground.
In 1960, none of the present constraints would have had much effect on the flow of outstanding scientists into our country. We were scientifically the most vibrant place in the world, and the best people were willing to make great efforts to come here. That is no longer the case.
After WW II, the U.S. forged a mutually reinforcing triad of complementary R&D strengths in industry, academia and government. However, U.S. industrial laboratories have greatly reduced their support for long-term basic research; and many U.S. corporations are shifting research and development to overseas locations—not just because foreign labor is cheaper, as is the common and comfortable myth, but because it is of higher quality! U.S. government laboratories are in various states of disarray, and no longer maintain the stature that they did in 1960’s. Government support for the physical sciences and engineering at universities has declined in real terms, and is suffering further under present budget pressures – clearly, a strong research capability is not a current federal priority. Enrollment in the physical sciences and engineering, as a percentage of undergraduates, is among the lowest in the industrialized world – the U.S. now graduates just 7% of the world’s engineers, for example. Given that our 12th graders score among the lowest in the world in science and mathematics, the ranks of U.S. born scientists and engineers are not likely to expand dramatically anytime soon. Our once strong triad of R&D capabilities is crumbling.
At the same time, science and technology are growing rapidly in other parts of the world. Over 70% of the papers published in the American Physical Society’s world leading journals, The Physical Review and Physical Review Letters, now come from abroad. As is illustrated in the second figure below, the number of first degrees in science and engineering awarded per year in Asia (most importantly China) is now almost three times greater than in North America. It is even somewhat larger than in all of Europe. As said earlier, it’s a mistake to think that all important defense technologies originate in the United States and hence that the problem is simply how to keep our technology from being stolen by others.