Columbia has long been a hub for science and innovation in mid-Missouri, and the international scholars associated with the University of Missouri have contributed a lot to that distinction. But the number of international scholars MU hires has been decreasing for the past five years.
Alexander Safronov has just renewed his visa -- his third visa since he started working for the University of Missouri. Safronov remembers the day he got his first visa acceptance letter. He was in his apartment in Moscow.
"Well, I definitely felt overwhelmed with emotions because I didn’t think that it would happen. I didn’t feel like I was the best person to do that, but I wanted to try," Safronov said.
That was more than five years ago. Since then, he has worked as a researcher with MU’s Institute for Nano and Molecular Medicine. He researches how nanotechnology materials can improve medical care. According to Darrel West from the Brookings Institute, H1B visas are a vital innovation tool.
"It’s designed to help those who have advanced degrees or specialized knowledge come to the United States so they can help companies that need that kind of expertise."
The U.S. has a cap on the number of H1B visas it grants each year. This year, it’s 65,000. That’s one-third the number granted a decade ago.
"We actually should have a higher cap. We should admit more students and more employees with those high tech skills because that’s the part of the economy that’s growing," said West.
Safronov says about half of his more than 30 colleagues are not permanent U.S. residents. Many of them are from Russia, India, China and other countries. Along with the rest of the public sector, MU doesn’t have to abide by the national cap. This puts the U.S. number of H1B visa recipients in 2011 at more than 300,000. But MU’s share of that is getting smaller. The reason? Cost.
David Currey is the Assistant Director of MU’s International Center. He says the H1 status makes sponsoring and investing in a new employee a much greater commitment for the university. In total, each H1B visa costs the university more than $2,000. That’s why the number of H1B visas has decreased every year for the past five years.
West says it will be difficult to fill these specialized jobs with Americans. He says not enough Americans are going into the science and technology fields.
"Science, technology, engineering and math. Those traditional fields are increasingly being studied by people from outside the United States, and American students are choosing other types of fields," said West. "We anticipate that we will have to hire people with visas."
Keshab Gangopadhyay owns a nanotechnology business in Columbia. At his company’s current size, nine of his ten employees are Americans—MU grads. For him, it’s an issue of quantity over quality.
"In highly specialized, sensitive areas, it may not always be possible to find highly specialized people easily."
Meanwhile, Currey says that for MU, H1B scholars are a necessity.
"What is the outcome you ultimately want? Well, you want the best research, because that best research may be discovering a cure. So the priority is always hiring the best talent. Then you have to deal with the secondary issues. You know, do we have the funds to go through the H1 process?"
Last year was the first time Alexander Safronov returned to Moscow since his visa was approved. He believes a lot has changed since then.
"From my room, I could really see a lot of sky. And now, it’s not like that anymore. I can only see huge buildings."
Last month, Safronov extended his visa for three more years.
"Now, when I have so much going on, from a science point of view, I don’t want to leave it. I want to go ahead and do this research more and more. "
He doesn’t know if he will ever go back to that apartment in Moscow, but for now, he’s happy to stay and continue his work.
Correction: A previous version of this story listed David Currey as the Director of MU's International Center. He is the Assistant Director.