When the Zika virus arrived in Florida in 2016 after wreaking havoc in Latin America, Governor Rick Scott gave state universities $25 million to research how to combat the virus’ transmission, how to develop a potential vaccine, and how to treat those infected. Teams of scientists – Americans, Brazilians, Venezuelans, Colombians and Haitians – worked together, across borders, to tackle a disease that also spread across borders.
These collaborations were just one example of how scholars in the Americas – and around the world – work together to tackle issues of mutual concern, to the benefit of all.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s intrusive new visa application rules could dramatically undermine these opportunities, with consequences that extend far beyond our ability to combat global pandemics. The new rules represent barriers to the engagement of scholars abroad with their American counterparts, with scientific, economic, social and cultural consequences; as such, they are short-sighted and self-defeating.
The new guidelines require visa applicants to provide the State Department with a list of social media profiles they’ve used for the past five years, as well as biographical information going back 15 years. However, the administration has not provided any information regarding how social media will be used to evaluate visa candidates. Our international collaborators are just like us – they head to Facebook to share news about their family, argue politics with friends, or voice their displeasure with the actions taken by their government. Some are involved with movements for social or political change, many of which organize their activities on WhatsApp or other such messaging networks. Still others use Twitter to advocate for LGBTQ rights or discuss their experiences as members of ethnic or religious minorities. Many international academics might balk, understandably, at making such personal information public.
Beyond privacy concerns, there is widespread worry throughout the academic community that these activities, to say nothing of posts critical of Trump or his policies, will be used as a pretext to deny visas to scholars from certain countries or academic disciplines. Denying visas to scientists coming for short-term visits will inevitably lead to decreased productivity by multinational research teams – there is no substitute for face-to-face contact when analyzing data, writing manuscripts, or planning future grant proposals.
However, this pales in comparison with the potential ramifications of a reduced influx of foreign talent into our academic workforce. The United States remains the primary destination for the world’s scientific talent, including internationally preeminent researchers recruited as faculty members, postdoctoral researchers, and the talented graduate students that do most of the work. Without them, research in the U.S. would come to a halt. This is not hyperbole – there are currently over 350,000 international graduate students completing advanced degrees in the U.S. They represent up to 70 percent of the student body in many science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. At many universities, the international student body in engineering departments exceeds 80 percent.
So why should people outside of the world of research care?
The first reason can be summarized in just one number: $32.8 billion. That’s the amount spent last year alone by the 1,043,839 international students in the U.S., which directly and indirectly supports over 400,000 jobs nationwide. The number of international students applying to study in the U.S. has already declined. It’s impossible to predict how many more students will be denied permission to study in the U.S. because of their activity on social media, or how many will choose to apply elsewhere because they don’t feel comfortable sharing such information. But with over 50 percent of international STEM students coming from China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of the 15,000 students from countries subject to Trump’s “immigration ban,” even modest declines in enrollment could have major detrimental economic impacts on some communities.
I live in one of those communities: using a tool created by NAFSA, an association of international educators, I learned that the 7,100 international students enrolled at the University of Florida pump $1.3 billion to the state’s economy. Students from Latin America make up a large proportion of our international student body, which is not surprising given the university’s, and Florida’s, deep cultural, economic and academic ties to the region. The state university’s Center for Latin American Studies, founded in 1930, is the oldest and one of the largest such institutions in the country. Losing these students would be detrimental not only to our communities in Florida, but also to the socioeconomic development of their home countries, to which many return, and from where they continue their positive interactions – academic or otherwise – with the U.S.
The second reason to be concerned about having fewer international scholars on campus is that diversity drives innovation. International collaboration leads to the high-impact research translated by start-ups and corporations alike into goods and services. This is also why employers prefer hiring graduates with some international experience: they are better prepared to work with increasingly diverse coworkers and clients. The first time many students will meet someone from Ghana or Malaysia or Brazil is when they take a class from them or they work together on a research project. Reducing opportunities for students to interact with international visitors will result in a less knowledgeable, creative and flexible workforce. This is especially true in states like Florida, where such a workforce is particularly critical because of our large immigrant community and an economy dependent on international tourism and trade.
America’s universities are global leaders in research and innovation and major drivers of economic growth. Neither of these would be possible were it not for the contributions of teachers, students and researchers from around the world. We should be looking for ways to stimulate more international collaboration and educational exchanges, not impede them.
Bruna is a professor and distinguished teaching scholar at the University of Florida, where he holds a joint appointment in the Center for Latin American Studies and Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation.