At Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke, postdoc Carmen Muñoz Ballester has been working around the clock as part of the team developing a testing protocol for COVID-19. She typically studies traumatic brain injury and temporarily switched gears to join the COVID-19 group. Last week, they got approval from state and federal regulators to put the protocol to work analyzing patient samples collected by regional health departments and health centers.
Like about half of the life science postdocs in the US, Muñoz Ballester is not a US citizen. She grew up in Spain and earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees there. About one-third of the science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded each year in the US also go to international graduate students.
Pandemic-related concerns that have arisen for science trainees—shuttered labs, research and education delays, anxiety—are applicable across the board. But international graduate students and postdocs face a suite of unique challenges that raise uncertainty about recruiting and supporting this critical group of researchers in the future.
Planned visa renewals for students and postdocs who have positions and funding, as well as new visa applications from students who have been admitted for fall, are all on hold as of March 20.
“The international students and the role they play in support of the STEM fields is of great concern. They are a significant part of the STEM workforce,” says Tobin Smith, the vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities (AAU). The biggest concerns surround visas—both the process of obtaining them and the restrictions they impose on holders.
Before coming to the US, international students usually apply for an F-1 visa, while prospective postdocs apply for either a J-1 or H-1B visa. These give trainees permission to learn and work in the US, while placing limits on the duration of time they can spend outside the US. The visas typically last for the expected duration of training, but must be renewed periodically by visiting a US embassy or consulate in the student’s or postdoc’s home country.
“Because I have a J-1 visa, if I’m abroad for more than 30 days, I can lose my status,” says Muñoz Ballester. Given more visa-related flexibility, she might have chosen to go home to Spain to be with family during the pandemic. “There’s the emotional part of knowing that you are far” from loved ones, she says, and then the feeling of being restricted. “You have two options, leaving your family alone or leaving your job.”
Planned visa renewals for students and postdocs who have positions and funding, as well as new visa applications from students who have been admitted for fall, are all on hold as of March 20. That’s because the requirement for an in-person interview can’t be met as most visa offices around the world are closed due to the coronavirus.
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the State Department have issued guidance that allows for more flexibility—including remote learning, either in the US or in students’ home countries—for students on F-1 visas, but as of now that guidance only extends to current students, says Meredith Asbury, a policy officer at the AAU. Her organization and other higher education advocacy groups have asked for more guidance, including extending visas for students and the provisions that allow for remote learning, in three letters to the agencies.
The effects of travel bans on international students
It’s also unclear when travel restrictions are going to be lifted and when international travel will start again, she adds. “In addition to that, there’s still the possibility of another presidential order extending additional immigration restrictions, which could add another layer.”
As of March 11, presidential proclamations had banned people who aren’t American citizens from traveling to the US if they’ve been in China, Iran, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and any of 26 European countries in the preceding 14 days. And on April 22, another presidential proclamation placed a 60-day suspension on issuing green cards for people who want to come from abroad, but does not affect F-1, J-1, and H-1B temporary visas.
“As institutions are figuring out what their fall semesters are going to look like, that becomes a challenge when they don’t know if the federal guidance is going to match up with what their institution is looking to do in terms of the flexibility in instruction,” Asbury says. “Institutions are still admitting students for the fall, but if the students decide to come or if they’re able to get here in time, that’s still unclear.”
If international students don’t come either because of visa issues or travel and immigration bans, it could affect both the finances and execution of research and higher education in the US.
“Based on [federal] policies that made immigration more challenging the last couple of years, across the country, we saw a decline in PhD admissions. That’s the biggest import of international students we see,” says Sudha Krishnamurthy, the director of the office of postdoctoral and graduate student affairs at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco. “And we saw a [corresponding] decline in the number of applications given how many fewer international admissions there were.”
The Council of Graduate Schools has done a yearly report on international student applications, admissions, and enrollments since 2004. For the first time since fall 2003, it found that 2017 applications from international graduate students dropped by 3 percent and enrollment by 1 percent compared to 2016. The 2019 report from the Council of Graduate Schools showed that for fall 2018, applications from international graduate students fell by 4 percent and first-time enrollment was down 1 percent from 2017. The bulk of the declines were from master’s and certificate programs, and from students from the Middle East and North Africa, where five of the seven nations included in the January 2017 travel ban are located. For instance, in fall 2017, applications from prospective Iranian students dropped by 18 percent.
Ripple effects to the broader research community
A global pandemic, coupled with these immigration-related challenges, is likely going to mean a further decline of people coming in to the US, Krishnamurthy adds.
“It makes a really big difference whether we just have a temporary glitch or this goes on for some time. And nobody knows if it’s going to go on for some time,” says Dick Startz, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. While the department or university supports most PhD students in the sciences in the US, many international undergraduate and master’s students pay full tuition—funds that then go to support the department. If these international students don’t come in the fall, institutions “could take an incredible financial hit,” he says.
“Most basic research in the United States comes from universities and that research absolutely requires PhD students and postdocs to make it happen,” Startz adds. “The commercialization often happens in private companies, but the underlying ideas come out of universities. No PhDs and no postdocs pretty much means no labs. No labs means a hell of a lot fewer new ideas and products.”
Beyond the immediate financial impact, losing international trainees could have ripple effects down the line. “Our high tech industry depends on hiring well-trained scientists and there’s going to be a big shortage of them” if international students don’t come here at all or can’t get a visa to stay and work for American companies, Startz says, adding that many international doctoral students are more likely than American students to go into industry.
Recruiting international postdocs may also change, not only due to current issues of global mobility, but also based on how the scientific world will respond to the pandemic, says Anita Corbett, a biologist at Emory University. Often you meet future trainees at a meeting, but if meetings become virtual, those interactions are going to be really different. “There probably are going to be long-term implications and ramifications of this acute phase that are going to play out in some ways that we still don’t understand,” she adds. There’s a “risk of [science] becoming less diverse and creating a less rich learning environment for everyone.”
The way to continue to recruit the best people from around the world is to get creative, says Malú Tansey, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida. She and her colleagues are planning virtual postdoc fairs with several professors recruiting at once, so that trainees from all over can match up with investigators whose research would be a good fit. And she remains optimistic barriers to studying and working in the US will be surmountable. “We need to convince these international students that it might be a little harder, but that it’s still worth it because we can provide a good training environment, good infrastructure, and really a commitment to develop their work.”
Other things that would help support trainees once they are here, adds Muñoz Ballester, are expanding visa time and providing more funding opportunities. Her J-1 visa is good for up to five years, but during the pandemic, she’s already lost months of productivity. The National Institutes of Health now allows applicants for the K99—one of the only training awards international postdocs can apply for—to apply to extend their eligibility beyond the four years of postdoc experience that applicants are typically limited to. But that increased flexibility matters less if visas for international postdocs can’t be similarly extended.