Written by: Elana Goldenkoff

Editors: Jacob Flaherty, Genesis Rodriguez, and Emily Glass

The coronavirus pandemic is the most immediate crisis that President Joe Biden is facing and, because of the global impact of the virus, it is not a fight the United States can win alone. Managing the effects of the virus requires concerted international efforts to address.  However, in recent years the U.S. has disengaged from the political affairs of other countries. Unfortunately, the increased American isolationism and ‘America First’ policy of the previous administration hindered foreign relationship-building and limited the connections and resources that the U.S. has at its disposal.

One of the biggest casualties of this isolationism was scientific diplomacy, the use of scientific collaboration to build partnerships and advance multinational priorities. Trump administration policies such as withdrawing from international organizations, previously-negotiated deals, and multilateral agreements, undermining the credibility of scientists, and the 2017 travel ban which prevented citizens of specific countries from entering the U.S., have severely harmed the ability of American scientists to exchange ideas on a global scale and ultimately hamstrung America’s capacity to respond to the emerging crisis.

More broadly, these barriers to international collaboration have damaged American innovation, hampered the advancement of the international scientific community’s goals, and weakened the nation’s ability to address future global challenges.

While President Biden signed an executive order to undo the 2017 travel ban on his first day in office, the damage has already been done. Over 40,000 individuals were refused entry to the U.S. due to the travel ban, and countless others didn’t even apply for visas knowing they would not be welcomed. A clear message was sent to students and researchers from the 13 affected nations: “we do not want you here”.

Due to ‘America First’ policies, attendance at academic conferences in the U.S. over the past four years has declined.  These meetings serve as prime occasions to share ideas, develop partnerships, and gain new perspectives on emerging research. The loss to the scientific community from the absent speakers, blank poster presentations, and missed networking opportunities is incalculable.

Beyond the challenges that the travel ban created for current research collaborations, this exclusion also affected the next generation of scientific thinkers. Many professors, university presidents, and even American Nobel laureates decried the ban because of its impact on attracting foreign talent; students and early career researchers who were given the impression that the U.S. is unwelcoming to immigrants likely went to study and work in other, more inviting, countries.

Indeed, the impact was abruptly felt within higher education- the 17,000 students at American Universities in 2017 who were citizens of one of the banned countries suddenly found themselves unable to leave the U.S. for fear they wouldn’t be allowed back into this country. Fewer international students sought to further their education in America, and 40% of colleges reported a reduced number of foreign applicants. Additionally, there is an immediate financial cost to U.S. universities since international students often pay full tuition and contribute over $32 billion to the economy every year. However, it is impossible to know what the long-term ramifications of the loss of talent will be to American universities and commercial enterprises.

Isolationism not only harms the general progress of scientific advancement but specifically impairs the U.S. science, industry, and technological innovation sectors. Already the share of science, technological, engineering and mathematics (STEM) publications produced in the United States has been falling according to the National Science Foundation, as China has displaced the U.S. as the world’s top scientific article publisher and STEM-degree conferrer. These data shed light on a nation’s capacity for innovation and reflects a shifting global landscape where European and Asian countries are increasing their spending on science and technological research. 

The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the obstacles to global scientific collaboration. For example, air travel limitations and changes to visa laws due to the virus have  further reduced the number of international students at American institutions. The Biden administration therefore needs to go beyond just reversing these policies in order to restore the scientific talent pipeline and renew confidence in America’s commitment to international scientific affairs.

For example, going forward, the Departments of Education and Homeland Security can simplify the visa application process for foreign students accepted to U.S. universities. Biden’s administration should renew the US Science Envoy Program within the State Department which helps strengthen scientific relationships and advances science policy internationally. The administration can also support a modernized National Defense Education Act with funding to expand the domestic and international science and engineering pipelines. Similarly, President Biden can endorse the Startup Act. This bipartisan legislation promotes innovation by increasing visas for advanced degree holders and providing green cards to non-citizens who graduated from U.S. institutions in STEM fields.

Additionally, the U.S. needs to demonstrate that it is once again a team-player on the international stage and is no longer governing solely with ‘America First’ policies. President Biden already took the first steps to reengaging with and recommitting to transnational science alliances such as the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Agreement, but the U.S. can go further in restoring its international partnerships. Participating in science diplomacy endeavors such as COVAX, the global effort to distribute coronavirus vaccines to poorer regions, would strengthen U.S. connections with other nations and cultivate scientific progress and technological innovation.

 Many isolationism policies of the past four years can be undone with the stroke of a pen. But mitigating the damage done, reestablishing science diplomacy efforts, and ensuring American innovation and excellence will require sustained administrative and legislative commitment.

Elana is a 2nd year PhD student in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan. Her research explores how non-invasive brain stimulation can alter neural plasticity and help with rehabilitation for motor control disorders. She is also studying Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Ford School. She enjoys learning about the relationship between science and the government and wants to support policymakers as they make science-related legislative decisions. Outside of the lab, Elana enjoys ballroom dancing and exploring her new home state, Michigan.

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