A White House initiative to attract foreign STEM talent will likely address shortages in the biomedical research workforce but will have little impact on the growing drought of physicians in the U.S.
A series of policy actions from the Biden administration include adding nearly two dozen study fields to a student visa program that allows graduates to stay in the country for up to three years to complete optional practical training. A top official in the White House science office says biomedical research will see some impact, even as the fields of study targeted in the program are science, technology, engineering, and mathematics more broadly.
“This is clearly an effort aimed at really attracting the best and brightest talent from all over the world to our STEM enterprise. And obviously, the biomedical enterprise is a huge part of that with the magnitude of NIH funding,” Carrie D. Wolinetz, deputy director for health & life science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in an interview.
Challenges in maintaining a solid pipeline of biomedical researchers to come up with new discoveries have persisted for decades. That’s in part due to a dozen years of flat NIH funding between 2003 to 2015 that made it harder for younger scientists to compete for a limited pool of grants, when the agency could fund only one in every five applications.
Policy analysts say the STEM actions are a good first step but that they won’t help the growing shortage of doctors, which fall under a separate visa program that’s not part of the latest White House initiative. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the U.S. could see a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.
The U.S. already attracts a lot of great foreign scientists at all levels of the biomedical workforce, said Wolinetz, who spent more than six years as National Institutes of Health acting chief of staff and head of the agency’s science policy office before taking her current role at OSTP.
“Anything that sends, as these sort of policy changes do, a strong message that global talent is critically important for STEM is going to naturally send a strong signal to biomedical scientists,” she said.
The immigration system is already complex. Covid-19, travel bans, and refugee crises have exacerbated those challenges for foreign students, Natalie Tynan, associate vice president for immigration and international issues for the Association for American Universities, said.
“There’s not been a lot of great news on the immigration front. And one thing that this package does is send a message that we really do welcome STEM talents and international students in the United States” Tynan said.
The White House initiative draws attention to, and provides guidance on, existing visa options that companies and universities can utilize to bring over top talent outside of the typical H1B work visa, which has a cap and typically takes months to process.
“It’s really reminding employers, ‘Hey, you’re used to dealing with these classifications, but don’t forget, these are out here too, and they may be more flexible for you. And they may get your employees your green card faster,” Tynan said.
Promoting diversity in the science workforce will remain an issue as the White House carries out its plan, however. Black scientists in particular have had a hard time procuring research grants, prompting an NIH initiative to combat structural racism in biomedical research.
“The biomedical research workforce reflects the broader STEM talent workforce, in terms of challenges related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. That is something we struggle with across the sciences, and the biomedical workforce is not immune to that,” Wolinetz said.
The White House’s latest actions will “make more opportunities available, and in some cases, it will make more candidates available for specific positions,” Heather H. Pierce, senior director for science policy and regulatory counsel for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said. But it won’t be a “huge change for biomedical research,” she said.
Biomedical research relies heavily on a physician-scientists workforce. According to Wolinetz, “We know there’s a shortage of physician-scientists, and so that’s going to require an overarching push to attract a diversity of physician-scientists domestically and globally.”
The new initiative also doesn’t address the J-1 visa waiver, which allows recently graduated medical students to stay in the U.S. instead of returning to their home country for at least two years, Tynan said.
“Things related to doctors and the J-1waiver get more complicated. So I suspect we will see that later,” Tynan said. “But I think for their first approach, they wanted it to be clean, straightforward, no challenges, and substantive. And I think that’s what they achieved.”
SWolinetz said the plan is “an important first step to send that kind of welcoming message to the world. But it’s obviously worth thinking through if there’s even more we can do specific to the physician-scientist base, because that is clearly an area of great need and has been for a long time.”
Source: Bloomberg Law