Op-ed: International scholars are vital to American innovation and competitiveness

Earlier today, following a lawsuit filed by MIT and Harvard University, the federal government rescinded a policy that would have prevented potentially hundreds of thousands of foreign students from studying in the U.S. this fall if classes were taught remotely.

“Yet the larger battle is far from over,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif writes in an op-ed published this evening by The New York Times. “This misguided policy was one of many signals that the administration wants foreign students to stay away — an attitude that reflects a stark misreading of our national interest.”

Such signals undermine the very strength America’s competitors envy most: the ability to draw the best and brightest from all over the world to work and create together, according to Reif. He notes that tech leaders in China, for example, have spoken to him of the United States’ advantage when it comes to scientific creativity.

“Why is foreign talent so important to the United States?” Reif writes. “For the same reason the Boston Red Sox don’t limit themselves to players born in Boston: The larger the pool you draw from, the larger the supply of exceptional talent. Moreover, America gains immense creative advantage by educating top domestic students alongside top international students. By challenging, inspiring and stretching one another, they make one another better, just as star players raise a whole team’s level of play.

“Unfortunately, when you turn away great players, rival teams happily sign them. Other countries are working hard to attract students who have soured on the United States because of growing anti-immigrant hostility or bureaucratic roadblocks.”

Reif notes that foreign students bring with them the kind of personal drive that built the United States. They also tend to stay in the country, contributing to its society and economy. He cites data showing that, for example, 83 percent of PhD students from China — the kind of highly trained scientists and engineers who drive American innovation — were still in the U.S. five years after completing their degrees.

To be sure, the United States must screen students seeking visas and keep out those with dubious backgrounds, writes Reif, who also argues for increasing the number of Americans pursuing training in science and engineering. “But we must also understand that America’s strength in science and engineering is central to America’s strength, period — and that a core element of that strength, for decades, has been our ability to lure the world’s finest talent.”