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International students are key to a strong economy

As the Iowa caucuses draw near, the presidential candidates should let voters know where they stand on ensuring our nation continues to attract the best and brightest students from around the world to keep America as a science and technology global leader.

The reason? Science and technological advancements have been the predominant drivers of gross domestic product growth during the past half-century, according to a study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In Iowa, for example, we can boast of more effective and efficient ways to farm because of science.

Our nation’s role as a global leader in innovation, however, remains in jeopardy as the number of international students applying for physics Ph.D.s at essential U.S. institutions are experiencing a major decline. According to a survey by the American Physical Society, international applications to a representative subset of the physics departments responsible for training and educating more than 70 percent of the nation’s physics Ph.D.s dropped 22 percent during the past two years.

Fortunately, our U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley are in a position to help by co-sponsoring the Keep STEM Talent Act, which would enable high-skilled international graduate students to both study at U.S. universities and provide a path to a green card if they secure job offers from U.S. employers after graduation. Both Ernst and Grassley sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation. The presidential candidates should also take note because Iowans care about science. In fact, in a survey jointly conducted by Research! America and Science Debate, 74 percent of respondents said it is important that presidential candidates talk about how science and scientific research will affect their policymaking decisions.

More than half of the students conducting research in my theoretical physics group at Iowa State University are from outside the country, so I know firsthand the concerns international students have about studying physics in the U.S. First, they are concerned about simply getting here because of visa delays. Once here, they worry about whether they will be able to stay upon graduation and work for American companies on crucial research that impacts issues most voters care about, including health care and national security. Our country needs the best and brightest students — both domestic and international — to keep our STEM workforce pipeline viable, and that includes Iowa, which has more than 12,000 open STEM jobs, according to a report by the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. To achieve that goal, the U.S. Senate should pass the Keep STEM Talent Act. And Ernst and Grassley are integral to making that happen.

James Vary is a physics professor at Iowa State University and a descendant of Iowa immigrant farmers (1858).