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Immigration and US Science PhDs March 25, 2010

Posted by tomflesher in Academia, US Politics.
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On March 21, Thomas L. Friedman published an editorial in the New York Times in which he discussed the effect of legal immigration on the supply of knowledge in the United States. Friedman demonstrated that effect by citing the proportion of recent immigrant families in this year’s Intel Talent Search.

Today, the Times published several letters in response, including one from Stuart Taylor of Los Angeles. Dr. Taylor’s letter, the second on this page, argues that the oversupply of scientists created by open immigration policy has negative effects on the United States because it leads to American scientists facing too-stiff competition for employment. Specifically,

Without stricter immigration policies, the oversupply of Ph.D.’s just gets worse and worse, with the result that in some fields immigrants are being given a large fraction of the jobs. These are science jobs that Americans want, are applying for and are being turned away from.

Wisely, Dr. Taylor does not argue that the large proportion of immigrant scientists has a negative effect on productivity in science. Rather, he argues that “It is harmful to trumpet the rest of the world’s students who are being given our jobs as “America’s Real Dream Team.”” His argument contains the assumption that given the choice between an American scientist and an immigrant scientist, there is some inherent good in favoring the American. He does not explicitly consider the possibility that the large fraction of jobs given to immigrant scientists are given to them because they are better prepared for those jobs than Americans are. Dr. Taylor would do well to consider the effects of his suggested policy of stricter immigration standards on productivity in fields employing PhD scientists. It seems evident to me that since employers are self-interested, they are employing the scientists they expect to be most productive, and as a result, the open supply of scientists from abroad leads to a net positive effect on the science produced in the United States.

Dr. Taylor does, however, mention an item of concern: the oversupply of PhDs in the current job market. This oversupply is generally attributed to one of two causes:

  1. Standards for granting a PhD are too lax, and the degree is losing its signaling value;
  2. Non-economic concerns lead students to pursue PhDs which are not necessary for their careers, leading to a glut of qualified applicants.

There is essentially no economic solution to situation (2). The solution to (1) would of course have to involve aligning incentives such that fewer PhDs are granted, but such a solution would be unpalatable and would likely have the effect of tightening admissions as well as graduation. As a result, fewer candidates who are not predicted to be highly successful would be given the chance to work toward a doctorate, and since predicting academic success is an imperfect process, it stands to reason that fewer brilliant scientists would be produced.

Instead, the solution to the oversupply of science PhDs is probably one that allows profit to be derived from them. Dr. Taylor should instead be arguing for incentives to run independent research and development labs, in order to put additional resources (i.e., unemployed scientists) to use. These incentives might take the form of tax credits or even more robust outsourcing on the part of major corporations similar to the X Prize model. After all, even a marginal PhD still has rigorous training in research methods and would present a benefit to a development lab.