How to lose a technology cold war: Restrict visas

How to lose a technology cold war: Restrict visas
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Last week, China’s education ministry issued a warning to students: if you’re thinking about studying in the United States, you might want to think again. Citing a rise in visa delays and refusals, officials called on students to adjust their “risk assessment” of pursuing an American education.

While it might be tempting to dismiss the statement as a propaganda ploy amid a deepening trade conflict with China, the fact is that the Trump administration has taken steps that restrict Chinese students and researchers from coming to the United States, putting the U.S. on a trajectory to potentially lose its edge against its biggest competitor.  

In a contest between the United States and China for economic and technological leadership, the United States needs to double down on a principle that led it to become a global power in the first place: openness to the world’s best and brightest talent.  

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However, the Trump administration is doing the opposite. Last summer, the White House cut the duration of visas for Chinese graduate students in certain science and technology fields, effectively stranding students visiting family overseas during the holidays. The administration now reportedly is considering more stringent rules for all Chinese students, starting with invasive and burdensome measures to screen applicants based on their social media history. In the semiconductor industry, the U.S. has dramatically slowed approval for companies to hire Chinese nationals for advanced engineering jobs.

Visa restrictions will discourage top applicants from applying to U.S. universities, cutting off the pipeline of talent to Silicon Valley and other innovation hubs. Last year, new international student enrollments fell 6.6 percent, marking the second consecutive year of decline, according to a survey commissioned by the State Department. More than 80 percent of surveyed universities cited visa problems as a key reason for falling international enrollment.

Proponents of tighter restrictions on foreign students and researchers argue that academic exchanges are a conduit for intellectual property theft, citing findings from the National Institutes of Health that some researchers hold undisclosed research appointments in China. But the NIH report argued only for greater oversight and awareness, and maintained that international collaboration remains vital to scientific advancement.

It is simply not true that Chinese students come primarily to study and then take their newly gained knowledge home. Eighty-seven percent of Chinese doctoral students at U.S. schools intend to stay here after graduation, according to a National Science Foundation survey, and high-skilled immigrant workers like them have been shown to make U.S. companies more innovative. The fact is that the American economy benefits when top students are allowed to come and stay.

The problem isn’t just about visas. New restrictions on technology make it harder for top talent to stay and work in the United States. Last August, Congress expanded the scope of foreign investment screening and export controls to prohibit foreign investors and scientists from working on technologies deemed essential to national security, including fields such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics.

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While some controls are certainly necessary to protect the technologies most critical to national security, overly-expansive restrictions could do the opposite — driving talent back to China, the United States’s biggest competitor, where the government is investing heavily to foster domestic innovation.    

Take electric vehicles, for example. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego are leading the search for advanced batteries to power the next generation of electric cars. Under current export control rules, U.S.-based foreign scientists are prohibited from researching these technologies in a commercial setting without a federal license. Yet preventing foreign scientists from working in the private sector hurts U.S. innovation because private firms are the best at bringing new technologies from the lab to the market.

If they can't work here, they may go elsewhere. China is actively recruiting global talent by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in electric vehicle research and doling out incentives to qualified foreign experts, including Chinese students studying overseas.

Meanwhile, U.S. investment restrictions bar foreign investors from funding advanced battery start-ups without government approval. Less investment means less capital available to build the billion-dollar factories needed to ramp up electric vehicle production to scale. No wonder that a wave of young, U.S.-trained Chinese talent is following capital and opportunity to innovate back home.

More than anything, turning inward in response to China’s technological challenge makes foreign talent second-guess the United States as their creative home. FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony last year characterized Chinese professors, scientists, and students as part of a “whole of society threat,” sending a hostile message to those working to keep the U.S. at the forefront of technological progress.

This is not to say that the United States should do nothing, or that the Trump administration’s effort to protect critical technology is completely misplaced. Here are three recommendations to strengthen U.S. competitiveness:

First, abandon efforts to impose tighter visa restrictions on Chinese students, and expand the number of green cards for graduates with advanced degrees. The United States is made stronger when students from around the globe are given the freedom to choose their creative home.

Second, limit the scope of investment screening and export controls to the technologies most essential to national security, narrowly defined: advanced turbofan engines, long-range radars, high-powered lasers and solid propellant motors, for example. The U.S. should consider a “small yard, high fence” approach — protecting a limited number of critical technologies with strong enforcement — to minimize these restrictions’ collateral damage.

Third, increase federal research and development spending to match our ambitions. President Trump’s budget requests consistently have called for steep cuts to R&D at the Departments of Health and Human Services, Energy and the National Science Foundation, among other agencies. The innovation race can be won only if scientists at American labs have the resources they need to compete.

Talent is at the core of American competitiveness. If we want to remain a technological leader, we should remember how openness to global talent helped make us one in the first place.

Weiyi Shi is an assistant professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego.

Charlie Vest is a researcher at the Rhodium Group, New York. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @cvest88.