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Chemical Eye on immigration
by Preston MacDougall


November 30, 2004

Arnold Schwarzenegger and I have something in common. While it is true that every year a few students will drop out of my Honors Chemistry class, this happens to be the case for most freshman level classes in science. No, as far as I know, I am not referred to as "the Terminator" by pre-med or pre-pharmacy students at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). What the Governor and I have in common is that we both immigrated to this country, and eventually became naturalized U.S. citizens. While the Terminator came from the future, Mr. Schwarzenegger is from Austria, and I am from Canada.

The social and economic history of the Americas, and the United States in particular, is an ongoing story about immigration. There have been a few twists in the plot recently, involving both California and science, hence the opening comparison.

On the science front, buried in the 18-inch-high Omnibus Spending Bill just passed by Congress, is a provision for 20,000 additional H1-B visas. These visas are reserved for workers that are highly-skilled in science and technology fields - people that industry leaders say are in dangerously low supply here in the U.S. The long-term solution to this problem is to stop the steady drop in numbers of American college students pursuing degrees in the so-called "hard" sciences and engineering. The short-term "fix" passed by Congress has its protectionist detractors, but there are other reasons why it may not work as well as similar efforts have in the past. Post 9/11, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or "INS" as they are fondly referred to, has stepped-up inspections of the backgrounds of all applicants for any U.S. visas. When that background shows science and/or technology training, as it would for any H1-B applicant, the scrutiny, and the delay, increase dramatically.

I know this thanks to the unfortunate experience of a student who was registered to take a graduate class from me this past spring. After graduating from MTSU last December, with a B.S. in Biology, he went back to Poland for the Christmas holidays. He was excited about starting on a Masters degree in biochemistry, but come January, he couldn't get back into the U.S. Apparently, with the heightened concern about bioterrorism, just seeing the word "biochemistry" raised a red flag with Consulate officials in Poland. He was told that it would take months for his visa to be renewed. He opted for medical school in Poland instead, and I wished him Na Zdarovia! Good luck to all those H1-B visa applicants, and the industry leaders anxiously in need of them.

In California, Arnold's supporters have initiated a proposal for the 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. This amendment would remove the stipulation - Article 2, Section1, Clause 5, to be precise - that only native-born citizens could seek the office of President of the United States. I have wondered about this restriction, which stands out like a sore thumb in a document that is the world's most reliable blueprint for a free society. It turns out that the ninth President of the Continental Congress, General Arthur St. Clair, was President at the time that the U.S. Consitution was signed, on September 17, 1787. He is also the only foreign-born person to have so served.

Arthur St. Clair was born in Scotland, and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh before he became an officer in the British military. Scottish soldiers have a fearsome reputation, and in Mike Myers' second Austin Powers movie, his kilted character, Fat Bastard, was no Prince Charming. Now, I have no idea if there was any personal animosity between General St. Clair and the signers of the U.S. Constitution, but it does seem rather suspicious. In the General's defense, I would argue that had it not been for the 1759 Battle on the Plains of Abraham, overlooking Quebec, where St. Clair fought notably under the victorious General Wolfe, the U.S. Constitution could possibly have been written not in English, but in French!

Getting back to science. In 1999, an extensive study was reported in the journal Science by social scientists Sharon Levin and Paula Stephan. They claimed that their analysis of citations in the scientific literature, as well as other measures of success, such as research funding and major prizes, demonstrate that, on average, foreign-born U.S. scientists significantly outperform native-born scientists, and are a key source of the strength of American science. This is no surprise - why should science be any different from the other chapters in the American story of immigration?

It seems counter-productive to deter or restrict foreigners from following their dreams here, whether that is becoming a chemist or being elected President. Ominously, this year saw the first drop in the total number of international students studying at U.S. universities since 1971. I also note that my alma mater, McMaster University, just proudly announced that one of their professors of pathology and molecular medicine has received a $19 million grant to study the West Nile virus. It is from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. This is believed to be the largest NIH grant to a Canadian university in many years. Officials note that "a non-U.S. study is only funded if no one in the U.S. has the credentials for the project." Perhaps we need to refocus on the long-term solution - the one involving education.

Preston J. MacDougall
Murfreesboro, TN


Note: Preston J. MacDougall is an Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry at Middle Tennessee State University.


Note: Comments published on Viewpoints are the opinions of the writer
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