Republican Senator Tom Cotton caused a furor when he advocated sending troops into American streets during the Black Lives Matter protests. Photo: AFP / Mark Wilson / Getty Images/AFP

In a recent article in Asia Times, David Goldman criticized the rush to decouple from China: “The suddenly popular idea of total decoupling of the American and Chinese economies, however, is not a policy, but a tantrum…. American technological capacity is hollowed out, even in fields at which we believe ourselves to excel, for example, information science.”

In particular, Goldman pointed out US deficiencies in engineering education. China has a huge advantage in producing undergraduate engineers, and its mathematics education is generally superior to that in the US.

In an extreme call for decoupling science and engineering education, US Senator Tom Cotton states, “I think we need to take a very hard look at the visas we give to Chinese nationals to study, especially, at the postgraduate level in advanced scientific and technological fields.”

A significant limitation of Chinese graduate students would seriously impact university research in the US. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2015, the percentage of international full-time graduate students in electrical engineering, petroleum engineering, computer science, industrial engineering, and statistics was 81, 81, 79, 75 and 69 respectively.

Add to this the fact that a large majority of Chinese PhDs remain in the US, and the downside to US technology is obvious. The hit to US research will not be delayed. It will start immediately with universities.

To appreciate the naiveté of Senator Cotton’s proposal, and others who would like a large-scale restriction on Chinese PhD students, it is important to understand how university research functions.

University research involves PhD students, not undergraduates. The latter pay tuition out of their own pockets, whereas good PhD students are funded through grants that faculty obtain from government and industry. The student’s tuition and fees are covered, and he receives a stipend for living expenses. The student takes courses, but his main job over a five-or-six-year span is to do research.

Fundamental engineering research requires high-level mathematical talent and education, and there is small pool in the general population who can do it, perhaps 0.2%. Moreover, strong undergraduate training in mathematics is beneficial. Top students hold all the cards: They can pick and choose what professors they want to work with. Professors compete for them.

When a professor considers PhD applications, typically there will be a significant number of Chinese students at or near the top of the list because, first, there are lot of Chinese students attending strong engineering schools in China, and second, their coursework is typically superior to that of US students. There are good US students, but not nearly enough.

To appreciate the problem of barring Chinese PhD students, consider a faculty researcher whose reputation is sufficient to attract the interest of some highly qualified candidates.

This year he has the funding to bring in two new students to work on a difficult research problem. He ranks the candidates and finds two with the talent and educational background to accomplish the research. They are Chinese. He is told that they cannot get visas, so he must find other non-Chinese students to fund. There are a number available, but none with the required ability. Nevertheless, two will be given research assistantships. The research will go on, but not at the level required to make a fundamental breakthrough.

The preceding case might seem extreme, but it is not rare. Moreover, if 3,000 Chinese are turned away who would have become graduate researchers, it means that they will be replaced by 3,000 students of lesser caliber, while they either remain in China or go somewhere other than the US.

This scenario, repeated year after year, would deal a critical blow to US competitiveness. This is not a game of just getting students; it’s a brutal competition for the best students worldwide because the pool of human beings who do research at a high level is small. The US does not bring in Chinese students to help China; it brings them because it needs them for research. And most stay when they complete the PhD.

In an article in The Federalist supporting restrictions on Chinese students, Ben Weingarten poses a rhetorical question: “It is becoming almost something of a cliché at this point, but during the Cold War would anyone have thought twice about granting the Soviet Union access to our educational and research institutions in strategically significant disciplines?”

The answer is obviously “no.” But his question is overly simplistic. It ignores the fact that during the Cold War the US had many of the greatest European scientists and an education system searching out and preparing the best students, many coming from working-class backgrounds. The US did not need Russian students. The US does need Chinese students.

Rather than limiting top Chinese students, the US should do all it can to recruit them. These will go on to be among the best scientists, engineers, and computer scientists in the world, and every effort should be made to keep them in the US. No doubt there is some espionage, but that should be addressed by better security in those areas where secrecy is mandatory.

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Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.