Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Laughing and Crying

By Thomas L. Friedman
The New York Times
First I had to laugh. Then I had to cry.

I took part in commencement this year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of America’s great science and engineering schools, so I had a front-row seat as the first grads to receive their diplomas came on stage, all of them Ph.D. students. One by one the announcer read their names and each was handed their doctorate — in biotechnology, computing, physics and engineering — by the school’s president, Shirley Ann Jackson.

The reason I had to laugh was because it seemed like every one of the newly minted Ph.D.’s at Rensselaer was foreign born. For a moment, as the foreign names kept coming — “Hong Lu, Xu Xie, Tao Yuan, Fu Tang” — I thought that the entire class of doctoral students in physics were going to be Chinese, until “Paul Shane Morrow” saved the day. It was such a caricature of what President Jackson herself calls “the quiet crisis” in high-end science education in this country that you could only laugh.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud that our country continues to build universities and a culture of learning that attract the world’s best minds. My complaint — why I also wanted to cry — was that there wasn’t someone from the Immigration and Naturalization Service standing next to President Jackson stapling green cards to the diplomas of each of these foreign-born Ph.D.’s. I want them all to stay, become Americans and do their research and innovation here. If we can’t educate enough of our own kids to compete at this level, we’d better make sure we can import someone else’s, otherwise we will not maintain our standard of living.

It is pure idiocy that Congress will not open our borders — as wide as possible — to attract and keep the world’s first-round intellectual draft choices in an age when everyone increasingly has the same innovation tools and the key differentiator is human talent. I’m serious. I think any foreign student who gets a Ph.D. in our country — in any subject — should be offered citizenship. I want them. The idea that we actually make it difficult for them to stay is crazy.

Compete America, a coalition of technology companies, is pleading with Congress to boost both the number of H-1B visas available to companies that want to bring in skilled foreign workers and the number of employment-based green cards given to high-tech foreign workers who want to stay here. Give them all they want! Not only do our companies need them now, because we’re not training enough engineers, but they will, over time, start many more companies and create many more good jobs than they would possibly displace. Silicon Valley is living proof of that — and where innovation happens matters. It’s still where the best jobs will be located.

Folks, we can’t keep being stupid about these things. You can’t have a world where foreign-born students dominate your science graduate schools, research labs, journal publications and can now more easily than ever go back to their home countries to start companies — without it eventually impacting our standard of living — especially when we’re also slipping behind in high-speed Internet penetration per capita. America has fallen from fourth in the world in 2001 to 15th today.

My hat is off to Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, co-founders of the Personal Democracy Forum. They are trying to make this an issue in the presidential campaign by creating a movement to demand that candidates focus on our digital deficits and divides. (See: http://www.techpresident.com.) Mr. Rasiej, who unsuccessfully ran for public advocate of New York City in 2005 on a platform calling for low-cost wireless access everywhere, notes that “only half of America has broadband access to the Internet.” We need to go from “No Child Left Behind,” he says, to “Every Child Connected.”

Here’s the sad truth: 9/11, and the failing Iraq war, have sucked up almost all the oxygen in this country — oxygen needed to discuss seriously education, health care, climate change and competitiveness, notes Garrett Graff, an editor at Washingtonian Magazine and author of the upcoming book “The First Campaign,” which deals with this theme. So right now, it’s mostly governors talking about these issues, noted Mr. Graff, but there is only so much they can do without Washington being focused and leading.

Which is why we’ve got to bring our occupation of Iraq to an end in the quickest, least bad way possible — otherwise we are going to lose Iraq and America. It’s coming down to that choice.

Photo Credit: Thomas Friedman. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with Thomas Friedman's article "Laughing and Crying". As a Canadian PhD Candidate conducting research in the life sciences and studying at a US university, I am surrounded by fellow PhD students and postdocs in the lab from Japan, Korea, India, China, etc. - everywhere BUT the US. The lack of appreciation for the PhD degree is partly due to the fact that it takes 4 (or more realistically 5+ years) to complete AND it's very difficult (ESPECIALLY in the science field - Sorry qualitative "researchers" but surveys, interviews, and literature reviews are not that sophisticated nor rigorous). The time and dedication that is required to complete original scientific research and earn a PhD does not fit with the ever popular American culture of "immediate gratification". Why should a person commit 5+ years to one's education to developing analytical skills when you can get a job today so that you can buy the latest new gadget? In a culture that rewards idiots like Paris Hilton, it's no wonder that most young Americans are not pursuing scientific research. But that's not the sad part. The sad part is that the Immigration & Naturalization Service (aka Homeland Security) still makes it VERY difficult for people with PhDs that were earned in the US to stay/work in the US afterwards. Getting a greencard when one is highly educated and skilled is still a 4-5 year process (that is, IF an employer agrees to sponsor the "Alien". Many companies are now refusing to sponsor an employee for a greencard, isn't that right Procter & Gamble and Pfizer?) and if the alien changes jobs during that time, he/she starts back at Square One again in the process. How do I know this? Because as a Canadian with a Masters degree and employed as a business executive at a major global company, I was not able to attain my greencard in the end....but the taxi driver who drove me around the city had his greencard via the lottery system because he was born in one of the countries that's on the list of under-represented demographics. How is this greencard holder, or someone like him, going to come up with a scientific breakthrough for the US? Maybe the PhDs at Homeland Security have the answer...

Anonymous said...

I am a citizen of India and will be completing my DDS dental degree from a top notch American dental school. I know how difficult it is to get a green card- 6 years of H1B and then green card and then four more years for citizenship. After completing DDS, on F1 student visa, I have to leave America to get a visa stamp and on many occassions, applications are abruptly rejected due to the system.My friend who did masters in mechanical engg. in USA, and had a job offer from caterpiller, was abruptlly rejected Hi visa and then he reapplied and then he got it. Now, during green card processing, you cant even change your address and employer. I am currently planing to complete my degree, and go to canada directly on a skilled immigration program and accept canadian citizenship and serve canada, which really seems to appraciate tallent. American dental degrees are highly valued in canada. I feel sorry. If the immigration system was fast and effecient, I would have loved to serve America- American people are so friendly and nice- I really love them, but the immigration department is not effecient. They give preference to diversity visa lottery winners who don't have any degrees, cannot speak english and also illegal residents from latin America.

Anonymous said...

really sad.
I was reading a forum, where a woman was wondering if her soon to be expired Green Card will be canceled if she was not released on time from jail-She was being incarcerated for the THIRD time under prostitution charges!!! I felt really sorry for the honest and high qualified PhD students who were sent back home after earning their degree. (Too honest to contract a fake marriage for a GC).
I am an international student myself, about to earn my master degree. I had planned to take an internship/work one year before going for a Phd, but they make everything so complicated... i might just go straight to the PhD and see what happens then.
By the way RPS is one of the best! I wish I could afford it :)