Apr 7, 2022 - Science

International STEM graduates stick around the U.S.

Stay rates of international STEM PhD graduates in the U.S., by country
Data: National Science Foundation; Analysis: Center for Security and Emerging Technology; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

Most international students who received doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and math from U.S. universities between 2000 and 2015 remain in the country long after graduating, according to a new analysis.

Why it matters: The data suggests concerns about many U.S.-trained researchers returning to their home countries with skills and knowledge that could pose national security risks to the U.S. are "largely unfounded," researchers at Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology write.

  • "If anything, available data supports the Chinese Communist Party's concern that China is losing STEM talent to the United States and other countries," the brief says.

Details: The researchers found about 77% of the roughly 178,000 international students who received a STEM PhD between 2000 and 2015 were still in the U.S. as of early 2017, according to survey data from the National Science Foundation.

  • 90% of the 55,000 graduates from China and 87% of the 28,000 from India during that time remained in the U.S.
  • Together, they make up about half of all international graduates who stay.

Yes, but: China, for example, has adapted its own research programs so scientists based outside China can hold positions and work in both the U.S. and China. These arrangements were one focus of the U.S. Department of Justice's China Initiative, which was ended in February after accusations of racial profiling.

Keep in mind: The analysis only looks at PhD graduates, not those with master's and bachelor's degrees who are also part of the STEM talent pool.

The big picture: There's ongoing debate about how open the U.S. scientific system should be to international talent and collaboration because of concerns about a "reverse brain drain" increasing the risk of research theft.

  • But the new data doesn't support the notion that many PhD students leave, says Jack Corrigan, a co-author of the brief and research analyst at CSET.
  • "That is not to say research security is not a concern," he says. "We still need to be wary of specific ties, but to all countries. Blanket policies that target people from a single country will probably do more harm than good."

What to watch: The Biden administration has announced policy changes and a fellowship to attract and support international students to study STEM subjects in the U.S.

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