Behind US reliance on foreign scientists
In the wake of Chinese espionage scandal, Washington focuses on tighter
BOSTON — The railyards and skyscrapers of Chicago are a long way from the high desert of New Mexico, but when it comes to science, the two are practically neighbors. At the University of Chicago, researchers are modeling thermonuclear explosions, as are their peers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
At a time when the Los Alamos scientists may soon face lie-detector tests to protect against espionage, the research in Chicago is open to scientists -and inquisitive eyes - from all over the globe. That's because it is simulating blasts that occur naturally on stars, not man-made mushroom clouds on Earth.
The Chicago project hints at the complex challenge America faces: how to tighten security without dimming the quality of research that depends, perhaps more than ever before, on scientists who are citizens of other nations.
To some concerned Americans, the Chicago project is an accident waiting to happen. They note that a handful of Chicago project scientists are from India - a country seeking to bolster its nuclear-weapons technology.
But other experts warn of overreacting to recent revelations that China has systematically gleaned significant nuclear secrets from American labs.
Robert Rosner, director of the University of Chicago project, argues that foreigners are indispensible to US science.
"We have the usual mix of nationalities in our center. You would not distinguish us from any other physics or computer science research effort on campus," says Mr. Rosner, who was born in Germany and became a naturalized US citizen.
For now, Washington policymakers are focused on better policing of the national labs where the atomic bomb was born. Already, the Department of Energy which oversees the labs - faces a brewing revolt among classified researchers, who were recently told that they must to submit to lie-detector tests. Moreover, some Senators are pushing to establish a new subagency to oversee nuclear security.
Beyond national labs
Yet, whatever steps are taken, the security issues reach beyond national labs.
The science that springs from foreigners' nonclassified research - at national labs, universities, and private firms - plays an increasingly crucial indirect role in the technological superiority of America's defense. What's more, their participation plays a direct role in the nation's overall technological dominance.
"There are a lot of informed and brilliant people from outside the US who come here and contribute a great deal," says Mark Frankel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "If we adopt a policy that restricts people in serious ways from engaging in scientific inquiry in our labs, it would be a big mistake."
At Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, which are largely unclassified, 35 percent of visiting university scientists and 10 percent of visiting industry scientists are foreign. Of the labs' 14 distinguished scientists, two are foreign.
"Foreign citizens and foreign-born citizens are some of our very best scientists," says Joe Wagovich, an Oak Ridge spokesman. "International reciprocity at major facilities in the US and Asia is essential for true world-class science labs."
Software's growing role
In software development, a field that is becoming increasingly important to everyday life as well as defense efforts, foreign nationals are often the best programmers and wield heavy influence.
"Quite a few of the giant software projects are composed of a high proportion of people from Asia, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union," notes Ronald Graham, former chief scientist at AT&T labs and a faculty member at the University of California at San Diego.
The reasons behind this dependence are a combination of economics and rapid expansion.
Wages for scientists lag significantly behind wages for lawyers, doctors, and financial professionals in the US, so the best and brightest students often opt for big bucks in non-science professions. Meanwhile, the need for research scientists has surged, in part because of the rising importance of information technology.
While records tracking exact numbers of foreign-born scientists in the US are difficult to extrapolate, it's clear that these researchers have for several decades played a huge role in the scientific progress of the country. Dependence on these researchers first came to notice when a wave of scientists fled Nazi Germany to take up residence at universities in the US before World War II.
Key to Manhattan Project
They brought with them knowledge of nuclear physics that proved crucial to the success of the Manhattan Project that led to the first atomic bomb. Italian physicist Enrico Fermi designed the experiment that first unleashed a nuclear chain reaction. And after the war, German scientists like Werner Von Braun were key to the development of American rocket technology that put men on the moon.
This scientific influx was largely a European affair through the 1970s. Indeed, Dr. Graham notes that there were very few Chinese or other Asians in the US scientific community when he began teaching in the 1960s.
Today, however, more than half the students in his advanced computer science classes in San Diego are citizens of Asian countries. Asian graduate students and researchers predominate in computational physics, computer science, engineering, and other math heavy disciplines, many scientists say.
"In mathematics, something on the order of 57 percent of the PhD grads in the US are foreign nationals," says Graham. "From our perspective, the fact that we have these talented foreign nationals makes a tremendous difference. If we hadn't had them, I don't know if we would be where we are today."
Some economists argue that US government programs to fund foreign graduate students' education have actually produced a glut of PhDs in some fields. That, they add, has depressed wages and increased job uncertainty for research scientists. As a result, foreign scientists - who relish the opportunity to work at state-of-the-art US labs with good salaries - replace American students.
But there are signs that the globalization of capitalism is beginning to cut into the pool of available scientists - even in less-developed countries like China.
"They are noting that the very best students are going into business," says Graham. "You can make a factor of 20 in business over what you can make as a professor."