In order to prevent an exodus of international PhD students, we must stand together


Editor’s Note: Andy Hardt and Mahrud Sayrafi–the authors of this post–are PhD students at the University of Minnesota. Andy is in his fifth year of graduate school, and working on his thesis research with Ben Brubaker. Mahrud is in his third year, preparing for his candidacy exam with Christine Berkesch. In response to the “duration of stay” rule discussed in this article, they were part of a group of graduate students who wrote a letter to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, signed by 61 graduate students, 9 postdocs, 42 faculty, and 9 alumni. I am very grateful for their interest and coordinating efforts to reach out to public decision-makers. This contribution is a great follow-up to my October 16 post.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has recently proposed policy changes that will “remove the duration of status framework that currently allows [non-immigrants] in F, J and I classifications to remain in the United States for as long as they maintain compliance with the terms of admission.” This proposal, by laying a myriad of potential pitfalls for international students hoping to study in the US, creates genuine barriers and also effectively sends the signal that they are not welcome here. We reject this.

For many of us, a personal joy in studying mathematics is the access to human connections that defy distance. Regardless of gender, race, or faith, the knowledge we pursue brings us together across continents, and we endeavor to share this knowledge freely and openly because a language never spoken aloud is eventually forgotten. Even more, it is not uncommon for a work of mathematics to contain ideas that originate across centuries and millennia, reminding us that these ideas have transcended politics and conflict to become a part of the human experience.

Therefore, not only for practical reasons, but also as a matter of principle, we must maintain a unified voice against all attempts to limit who can study in the United States.

As graduate students in mathematics, we will focus this post on the harm inflicted on current and future international PhD students. However, many problems discussed here apply to undergraduates, post-doctoral researchers, and others as well.

The policy change would have clear effects on PhD students. The current duration of status framework is designed to allow students to complete their degrees while designated university officials certify that they are in compliance with visa requirements. Instead, the DHS plans to limit visas to a fixed four-year period, with further nationality-based restrictions that will be discussed later. What this means is that–barring an unspecified, potentially onerous re-application procedure which may be rejected purely at the discretion of the DHS–international graduate students must complete their degrees in four years or less.

Most PhD programs are set up to take either five or six years, and the average mathematics PhD student takes just under six years to graduate. Many students take seven or more years, and quite often come out with a stronger thesis for it. This flexibility allows PhD students to spend time searching for the right field in their early years, broadening their interests outside their main area, and considering their thesis area with the slow depth that is necessary for true problem solving. In other words, the existing timeline is set up for doing mathematics, and is essential to the deep, deliberate thinking that leads to real breakthroughs. During their graduate school years, most students are responsible for teaching–some carrying a high teaching load–and might even be involved in department service. In fact, many mathematics departments depend heavily on their PhD students to teach their lower level undergraduate classes.

If this rule is implemented, it will likely have a chilling effect on the number of PhDs earned in the US by international students, who make up roughly half of the total mathematics PhDs given out by US universities. The additional bureaucratic burden will likely force smaller departments to reduce admission offers to students who they know may not have the chance to graduate in four years or whom they know they can’t treat equitably, while top students will opt for universities in Canada, Australia, Europe, or elsewhere.

For an indicative example, consider Fields Medalists–28 Fields Medalists out of 60 were affiliated with a US university when they received their award. However, only 14 Medalists were US citizens. This discrepancy is not surprising to anyone in the mathematics community, as the US attracts vast numbers of top researchers from other countries. In fact, this trend starts in the graduate schools: 20 of the 60 recipients got their PhDs from American universities, and almost all were still at US institutions when they received the Fields Medal.

Beyond just the top researchers, international students have a large, positive impact on our economy. According to a report by the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), international students contributed over $40 billion and almost half a million jobs during the 2018-19 school year. In addition, according to the 2019 Open Doors report, more than three fifths of international undergraduates receive the majority of their funding from non-US sources. Many universities rely on this funding to fill in gaps left by state and federal funding. For their part, international graduate students contribute to the economy either via international sources of funding or via the teaching and department service they do.

In other words, our educational system benefits from the skills of international researchers and workers. Indeed, even those not sympathetic to the plight of international students should oppose the policy change for its effects on the economy. Higher education is an important area where the US has a strong track record: we must ensure that the best science is done in the US, the best scientists come to the US, and the US economy has direct access to these researchers and their work. Sabotaging this competitive advantage will hurt everyone.

Furthermore, while taking over the responsibility of universities in monitoring and reporting changes of status by the students, the DHS has targeted certain countries for shorter maximum visas, up to only two years. This would virtually eliminate the possibility of pursuing a PhD degree, and potentially even some Master’s degrees, for students from these countries. This restricted list is comprised of countries associated with “high visa overstay rates” and those on “the State Sponsors of Terrorism” list. For reference, this rule would have prevented the first and only female Fields Medalist Maryam Mirzakhani, who was born in Iran, from completing her PhD at Harvard University in 2004.

The DHS claims concern for a “potential for increased risk to national security” posed by international students. International students do not, by virtue of their citizenship or immigration status, pose a national security risk, and we must be clear that such a statement has no basis in reality and should not be normalized.

Regardless of the declared motivations, the restricted countries are almost uniformly developing countries in Africa and Asia with few students currently studying in the US, resulting in a policy that discriminates on the basis of national origin. In reality, overstay rates of students have been decreasing since 2016 and reached 1.52% in 2019, according to annual reports from the DHS. Moreover, by disproportionately affecting international students born in the listed countries regardless of their country of citizenship, this rule sends a message to those already studying in the US that we do not want or value their contribution because of their ethnicity.

In our view, this policy does not serve the interests of the US. For those familiar with the history of mathematics, it might even be reminiscent of the fall of Göttingen. When asked whether mathematics at the University of Göttingen had suffered from the exclusion of Jewish mathematicians, David Hilbert responded: “Suffered? It hasn’t suffered, Mr. Minister. It doesn’t exist anymore!” Indeed, many mathematics departments across the US flourished after welcoming mathematicians fleeing Europe during this time.

Mathematics is done by humans; therefore, we need to tend to our humanity. This policy is needlessly exclusionary, and will harm our departments and communities. We hope you agree with us that it must not stand.

What you can do to help:

  • Call your state attorney general and ask them to file or join a lawsuit against the policy change.
  • Talk to your colleagues, and ask them to do the above as well.
  • Put pressure on your university to come out against the change.
  • Reach out to your international postdocs, graduate students, and math majors, and help them get the resources and support they need.
  • Read this post on Capital Currents.


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Urgent Action Needed on New Immigration Rules


October 19 update: Thank you all for your interest. I received emails over the weekend from students, voicing concern and asking for further information about your own situation in light of the “duration of stay” proposed changes. First, this “proposed rule” is not in effect yet and it is unclear when and if it will be implemented. Legal action to stop this implementation is in process, and it is possible that the rule will be stopped. If it is implemented, it will certainly harm universities and affect international students. Second, your university will have an “International office” (or some title like that). I suggest you reach out to your own international office for guidance about your particular situation. If you cannot find yours on the university website, ask your Department Chair or Graduate Director.

There are new immigration regulations recently published by the Trump administration that will harm the mathematics community. Here are short overviews of each:

  • The Department of Labor (DOL) has published an Interim Final Rule for High-Skilled Wages, with comments due November 9; this went into effect October 8 prior to considering and responding to public comments. This will affect H1-B visas, and make it more difficult for highly-skilled foreign workers with college degrees to acquire visas. International math post-docs often are employed with H1-B visas, and many international faculty members join their university with an H1-B visa. Salaries will have to be raised significantly, and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of homeland security, said he expected the changes to cut by one-third the number of petitions filed annually for the coveted visas. The new required minimum wages may not be tenable for institutions of higher education. The rule may also result in US employers being positioned to pay foreign-born professionals more than their similarly employed American colleagues.
  • On September 25, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a Notice of Proposed Rule Making concerning the period of stay for foreign students and scholars in the F and J non-immigrant categories, with comments due October 26.  The rule will go into effect after the agency considers public comments. The new rule will eliminate the longstanding policy that allows students and scholars to remain in the US for “duration of status.” Under the proposed rule, “F or J nonimmigrants would be admitted into the United States for a period … not to exceed four years.” A typical mathematics PhD takes 5-6 years to complete. In addition, the duration of stay will be only two years for those from countries with visa-overstay rates greater than 10% and those non-US citizens either born in or holding citizenship of a country on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Many of these countries are in Asia and Africa. The American Immigration Council has posted a very nice summary, which includes a list of these countries.

 What can you do?


1.      Give official comments, either by yourself, or with a group of fellow students or faculty.

a.      Feedback for DOL about the wage rule should be given here: Over 1000 comments have already been submitted.

b.      Feedback for DHS about the “duration of stay” rule should be given here: Over 21,000 comments have already been submitted. But, please, don’t think this means yours is not needed! If you choose to do this, I found these eight pages of instructions, sample text and talking points useful (a tad hard to navigate but, in the end, good language and advice); it was produced by the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration and NAFSA. You might jump to “Guidance on Creating your Comment Letter” which begins at bottom of page 2. The “Talking Points might also prove useful; they appear pages 4-8.

2.      Tweet or otherwise share about these rules in social media, in whatever ways you are active.


3.      Write to DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, using this link. This link was set up by the American Physical Society, and we are welcome to use it. It allows you to customize and document how the rule will be harmful to science, the impact on you or someone you know, and how international students have been an asset to the US. Specifically, the link provides a prompt to enter your information (name and email) and then just three questions about the impacts of this rule and the importance of international students. Once you answer the questions, the software turns your answers into the body of your comment. You’ll then see a complete message, your answers bookended with a stock intro and conclusion, which you can edit before sending. Please note that this link is live, so only press send if you want to submit the comment.


Thank you for you interest, and for taking action to support our international students and colleagues.

Posted in Advocacy, Graduate students, Grassroots Leaders, Immigration | Tagged , | 4 Comments

What are your plans for the academic year 2021-22?


On the job market? On sabbatical next year? Looking for a new direction to go with your math background?

If you haven’t considered applying for the AMS Congressional Fellowship, I am going to try to convince you to consider it. The application portal is open until February 1. Feel free to write to me for more information and with questions (

Your mathematical knowledge about how a disease outbreak might spread through a population, or about how a transportation grid might be made more efficient, or about what artificial intelligence can or cannot do, are just a few examples that could help shape legislation. Outside of direct mathematical knowledge, legislation is drafted regularly about college access and affordability, and broadening participation in science. As you might expect, this summer we have seen expanded interest in the latter, and we should soon see a legislatively-mandated report on racism in science.

The September 1 blog post was written by the 2019-2020 AMS Congressional Fellow Lucia Simonelli. Lucia worked on Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s climate team and is now Senior Policy Fellow at Carbon180. Our 2018-2019 fellow was James Ricci, who subsequently served a second year at the Department of Energy, in the Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research. The 2017-2018 fellow was Margaret Callahan who now works at the Department of State as part of Advanced Analytics team in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations conducting qualitative and quantitative research and analysis of global conflict issues to advise policymakers. Margaret was one of several mathematicians who served as fellows her year; I wrote an article about all of them and their placements which, if you are interested in this fellowship, I suggest you read. The complete list of all AMS Congressional Fellows is found on our website.

The fellowship is a fantastic opportunity, for mathematicians at any stage of career. For mathematicians who have been an academic for a while, it can engage you in a new way, provide you with a way to “give back” through public service, and prepare you to run for public office. It can provide you a way to help move Congress to understand the scientific enterprise and the needs and aspirations of those of us who work in higher education; enrich your teaching; and bring you to a new level as a leader in the academy. For earlier career mathematicians, the experience can also be transformative, and lead to a career path outside of academia. This might sound like a call for you to leave academia; please don’t misread my intention! I love higher education and loved working as a professor and department chair but fully understand that not all PhDs in mathematics do in fact want to travel that career trajectory. Plus, I am in a position to understand what *you* can bring to the government, and why *they* appreciate our help in building policy and writing legislation.

The AMS Congressional Fellowship is just one of many that mathematicians can apply for, to spend time working in the federal government. A recent article by Jennifer Pearl and Ali Nouri in Inside Higher Ed describes more of these. Jennifer and Ali were both fellows and have both spent their careers in government and working with scientific professional societies. Jennifer, a mathematician, served in the Executive Branch, at the National Science Foundation. Physicist Ali did his fellowship in the Senate. I know both of them, and had the privilege to work with Ali when I was the AMS Congressional Fellow, in Senator Al Franken’s office. As is so typical of the (very large) fellows’ cohort, both of them are smart and interesting people, with fun side interests and projects. Watch a few of Ali’s Above the Fray videos, to get an idea of the kind of way he is bringing science to a broad audience.

The fellowship year begins with an extraordinary orientation period. This is filled with presentations about how Congress works, the history of various science policy-making bodies, and networking sessions. Every single fellow I have ever talked to agrees that what is so striking about the fellows is that—like Jennifer and Ali—each person is incredibly bright and interesting and articulate. One thing that differentiates this group of scientists from others is the earnest enthusiasm for bringing scientific expertise to non-experts, and trying to use scientific expertise to improve our nation. The AMS fellow joins a much larger group of fellows, many of whom hold powerful positions in the federal government and across the country in state governments and on university campuses; this network of over 3400 mathematicians and scientists is, truly, amazing to be a part of.

Fellowship applications can be made through February 1, 2021. For more information and to apply, go to the webpage. For additional information, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at



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COVID & Racism, their effects on the university scientific enterprise and what Congress is doing (or not doing) about them


What a summer we have had.

The killing of George Floyd and others has sparked renewed outrage over systemic racism in our country. Protests and demonstrations across the nation are calling for real change.

The pandemic continues unabated at a cost to the health and livelihoods of millions of Americans and the loss of life for far too many.

The repercussions of these things are being felt deeply in the scientific community. How do early-career mathematicians make the research connections they need without being able to travel to conferences? How are we to sustain our nation’s research infrastructure when university labs have been shuttered? How can scientific evidence be used to address societal racism? How can we address racism within the scientific community?

I know many of you have been working on these issues all summer. And, many of you have been leading change, and the charge for change to dismantle racism in the math community for a very long time.

My goal here is to describe some actions Congressional members have taken over the summer to address racism and research relief for strained universities.

With COVID research relief, I am not talking about developing vaccines, or studying the transmission of the disease, or the designing and manufacturing of PPE. Rather, I am talking about how research done on university campuses—more broadly—has been delayed or disrupted by the pandemic and how Congress is thinking about helping out university scientists and science students as we rebuild the university scientific infrastructure through the pandemic and—looking to the future—when it subsides.

Here are a few examples:

  • Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Chair of the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology, has called for a study of “the influence of systemic racism in academia on the careers of individuals belonging to racial and ethnic groups historically underrepresented in the scientific, technical, and medical workforce.” The AMS is one of over 70 societies that has supported this request.
  • She also introduced the Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act (HR 8044) which would help bridge the gap for recent PhDs, in an effort to keep them in the STEM workforce pipeline. This is a narrowly aimed bipartisan effort, requesting \$250 million of support for the NSF to “forestall the loss of research talent by establishing a temporary earlycareer research fellowship program.” Along with many other societies and universities, the AMS has endorsed this bill. At a much larger scale, to help all science rebound, there is
  • The RISE Act (HR 7308, S 4286), which is aimed at repairing the damage done to the research infrastructure and to researchers on university campuses. This bill has been introduced in both House and Senate and has bipartisan support. The AMS offers you the opportunity to ask your own members of Congress to support this bill. The request is for \$26 billion in emergency relief funding to be given to various science-funding agencies, including \$3 billion for the NSF. Funds that could, for example, be used to enable graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and Principal Investigators to complete work that was disrupted by the pandemic.
  • The House Science Committee held a hearing on “The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on University Research” , on September 9, focusing on the RISE Act. Committee members heard from scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, Purdue University, Oakland University and the University of Illinois system about how universities are approaching challenges to existing research and also for recruiting and nurturing students so that they begin and then stay the course pursuing their dreams of becoming scientists. The witnesses shared what the fall semester is looking like so far on their campuses. In her opening statement, Representative Haley Stevens noted “The impacts to our wider STEM pipeline could be devastating. Undergraduate students are missing out on critical hands-on training. Graduate students are worried there won’t be funding for them to finish their research projects and graduate. Post-docs and other early-career researchers are desperately searching for jobs in a severely contracted academic job market. Early data indicate that the impacts of these challenges are more pronounced for women and other groups historically underrepresented in STEM.” In his opening statement, graduate student Ryan Muzzio gave terrific and brave testimony. He spoke about the importance of traveling to perform research and network with colleagues and how disruptions to this have damaged progress toward his career goals; the “linchpin” role of graduate students in the education system; his concerns about his international fellow students and their situation; his own experiences as a black male student; and his concerns about job prospects. It was important to hear his perspective and I much appreciate the committee’s effort to include student voices.
  • The Promoting Fair and Effective Policing Through Research Act (HR 7252)—supported thus far only by Democrats—legislates that science would be used to inform policing reforms. It “directs the National Science Foundation to fund social and behavioral research on policing policies, including the causes, consequences, and mitigation of police violence, supports collaborative partnerships between social science researchers, law enforcement agencies, and civil society organizations; …..The bill also directs NIST to expand its biometric identification research and standards activities, with a focus on identifying and minimizing biases in such systems.”

The very wide range of challenges brought on by COVID has become the top concern for universities over the past six months. Before that, foreign ties and the current administration’s policy changes and investigations were the top issue; this remains a central concern for university research Vice Presidents. I have written about what the AMS (together with sister math societies) are doing to support our international students and colleagues, and also about balancing openness in science with security. I am really pleased that over 1500 letters have been sent to Congress using the AMS Take Action center through the link provided in my May 13 post on the President’s proclamation suspending the entry of immigrants to the US (this is no longer an active opportunity at our Take Action center). Alarming news continues to surface on this issue, such as described in this recent Chronicle article.

What else is going on in Congress vis-à-vis relevant to mathematics?

  • The RISE Act is proposed authorization legislation; Congress is also working on appropriations for research relief. This includes the CARES Act, which was made law in late March, and the now-introduced HEALS and HEROES Congress is also working on “the normal appropriations process” – an article about this process appeared in the September Notices (the “Washington Update”). Updates are regularly provided by Matt Hourihan, the director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At this stage, it is very difficult to imagine that Congress will do anything on appropriations other than to put in place a Continuing Resolution, which would likely run through the beginning of December. Congress must act on appropriations by October 1 to avoid a government shutdown and a CR would avoid a shutdown.
  • The NSF is undergoing its periodic re-authorization. Authorizing laws do not fund the NSF but instead set broad policies for the operation of the agency. What sort of broad guidance is this? NSF authorizations in recent years have, for example, requested the NSF support graduate students. There have been other bills introduced in Congress that are related to this re-authorization, including the Endless Frontier Act (described in posts in this blog on June 9 and 18).

I hope you are all off to decent academic years and that your students are living up to the challenges.

And, every time I get the opportunity to remind you……remember to VOTE on NOVEMBER 3!

If you do not know how, where or when to vote, have a look at this handy Washington Post resource. Your state’s Secretary of State website will likely provide full information about your ballot and how to vote in your locality. Information can be found here.

You can read the Trump administration’s latest priorities for scientific research and development in their annual memo release on August 14.

You can read about Biden’s research and development agenda here.

Posted in Congress, Federal support for science, National Science Foundation | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Our First Branch of Government Needs Science Too


Editor’s Note: Lucia Simonelli just completed her year as the AMS Congressional Fellow. She served in the office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and focused her work there on his climate agenda. She received her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Maryland-College Park and, prior to her year in Congress, had been a postdoctoral fellow in the mathematics section at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy.  Lucia is now a Senior Policy Fellow at Carbon180.

When we think of science expertise in government we often think of the NSF, NIH, CDC, or even national laboratories. We are reasonably aware of the structure, function, funding, reputation, and even scrutiny of many of these executive branch entities. However, we hear much less about the status of the scientific, technical, and medical expertise available to Congress, and consequently, these resources have been especially vulnerable to cuts and dissolution.

I begin with some historical context. Twenty-five years ago, Congress was a rather different place. There were significantly more Congressional staff, especially in committees. There were also substantially more staff serving in the Congressional support agencies; these support agencies are essential to the health and function of the legislative branch as they provide neutral, confidential, and credible resources to Congressional members and staff. Congress even had its own “think tank” called the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) with a mission and capacity to anticipate the scientific, technological, and medical issues that would eventually necessitate policy action.

During this time, circa 1995, under the guise of an initiative called “Contract with America,” Congress was stripped of many of these vital resources. Staff was cut, and the OTA was entirely defunded. Targeting the OTA specifically was political. It was the smallest of the Congressional support agencies, so it was the easiest to eliminate (the budget of the OTA was less than 1% of the legislative branch budget).  It was a very powerful symbol to cite the elimination of an entire agency.  In addition, particular results of the OTA’s thorough and comprehensive assessments were perceived to be at odds with certain political agendas.

It is difficult enough for Congress to come together and effectively act in the wake of a crisis – take for example the turbulence of the past few months. But what has become painstakingly clear is that in the context of certain crises, reactionary politics are not adequate; we must be well-positioned to act before.  And currently, Congress is not equipped with adequate resources to craft the forward-thinking policies that many issues do and will require.

One of the primary functions of the OTA was to craft “horizon scanning” reports which included the most cutting-edge findings available, compiled in a form readily utilizable by Congress. In addition, while not ever making policy recommendations, these reports provided comprehensive analyses of the policy options and the implications of these options through a transparent process open even to stakeholders. These public and peer-reviewed reports laid the foundation for many key pieces of legislation and remain highly regarded among experts in various technical fields. Princeton University has preserved an archive of these reports.

Imagine if Congress had these thorough, bipartisan resources for pandemics on hand a few months ago – there would certainly have been a report, if not multiple reports, on pandemics and pandemic responses after the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, Zika, etc. The reality is that we are facing an increasing number of issues that can only be dealt with successfully by anticipation, not reaction: climate change, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and quantum computing, to name a few.

In addition, OTA was Congress’s trusted intermediary, taking information, restricting it to fact-based arguments, and presenting it accordingly. The staff at OTA, and the network of experts created through the production of each report, served as invaluable, nonpartisan, consultative resources to Congress. OTA staff was often integrated directly with Congressional staff, and they were available to serve as in-house experts.

The vacuum of expertise left by defunding the OTA and cutting staff and capacities of other agencies, specifically in science, technology and medicine, has forced Congress to obtain its information externally. Increasingly, Congress has relied on outside stakeholders for expert advice and information. While stakeholders’ perspectives are invaluable, special interest and bias inevitably accompany these sources. Congress also now heavily relies on executive branch agencies – the very agencies for which Congress is tasked to provide oversight.  Consequently, cuts to the legislative branch have not made government smaller or less powerful, they have instead disproportionately allocated power.

“Failing to augment Congress’ technological expertise also ensures the preferences of executive branch agencies and private interests hold the greatest sway in technology policy decisions, to the detriment of the public interest. To address this, Congress needs to bring back its nerds.”[1]

There is a glimmer of hope as momentum grows to increase science and technology resources for Congress. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to revive a modernized version of the OTA, accompanied by appropriations requests from a growing cast of Members to refund the OTA and to increase science and technology capacity in currently operating agencies, e.g., the creation of the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team within the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Andrew Yang even included reviving the OTA as part of his 2020 presidential campaign platform.

Various fellowship and rotator programs have been developed to place experts from academia, industry, or executive branch entities in Congress. Examples include the AMS Congressional Fellowship and the TechCongress Fellowship.

While it is vital to advocate for increased and continued support for science in the executive branch, it is essential that we also push for Congress, the first branch of government, to have the expertise necessary to properly and effectively carry out its constitutional functions.


[1] Zach Graves, Kevin Kosar: Bring Back the Nerds: Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment (R Street)



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Remembering John Lewis; African Americans in Congress


Over the past two months we have seen renewed energy to address systemic racism in this country. This is very good and I am ever-optimistic that we can make many small steps forward, and maybe even some larger ones. I sure wish it didn’t take some tragedy like the horrific death on May 25 of George Floyd to galvanize us to act. In just one small step, the AMS took part in #ShutDownSTEM day, and we are continuing work started that day. This is indeed small but we can at the very least begin by making changes in our own homes, the contexts we can control.

It seems like hits are coming at every turn. In my DC-based world, we are mourning the loss of a true leader in the fight to end systemic racism: Congressman John Lewis. I have been pondering for some time what I could possibly write here, to add to the conversation.

I’ll start with the congressional context in which Lewis worked. In total, there have been 162 African Americans who have served in the US Congress (this number is relative to the total of 12,348 who have served). Ten have served as US Senators and the rest in the House of Representatives (most as Representatives but a few as Delegates). The first three— Jefferson Franklin Long, Joseph Hayne Rainey and Hiram Rhodes Revels—served in the 41st Congress (1869-1871).  Some sources only list Rainey and Revels; I am not sure why this is so, but it is probably because Revels was the first Senator and Rainey the first Representative. It is notable that Long served less than three months.

For about a decade following that beginning, the number of African Americans serving in Congress increased, it then decreased throughout the 1880s. From 1901 until 1929 the total number of African American House members sat at a dismal zero. In the Senate, the longest period without any African American members was an embarrassing 86 years (1881-1967). Since the mid-1950s these numbers have been more or less increasing, especially in the House. These trends align with other social movements in the country, working after the Civil War to first elevate but then quickly reverse this and instead to oppress African Americans. Our current Congress—the 116th running 2019-2021—began with the highest number of African American members ever at the start of a Congress: 57 (52 Representatives, 2 Delegates, and 3 Senators). Two of these are Republicans; the rest Democrats. Two giants from this group have died in the past year—Congressmen Elijah Cummings and John Lewis.

Number of African Americans in Congress, 1870 to Present.

Congressman Long represented Georgia and it took over 100 years before Georgia elected another African American to the House; Representative Andrew Young won a seat in 1972. John Lewis came next for Georgia; he was first elected to serve in 1986. Lewis served continuously until his death on July 17. He won 17 consecutive elections to the House. Lots has been, and is being written about him. I needn’t add to that, except to tell a sort of personal story.

John Lewis has for a long time been a personal hero. One of the biggest honors of my life has been to be on stage with him. In 2017 both he and I received honorary doctorates from Bard College (did someone say “imposter syndrome?”). The day began with a brunch at Bard President Leon Botstein’s home. I met the congressman there, and he was extremely friendly and kept telling me it was such an honor to meet a mathematician. For the many hours that the commencement took, I sat next to him on the stage and from time to time he would make a comment about the speeches that were going on. He told me I should reach out to his staff in DC when I returned. I did, and soon thereafter had a meeting with his staff to talk about shared concerns, mostly about the importance of higher education, and elevating groups of people (African Americans, women, low income) through education. We also talked about funding for science, and about the tax on tuition that was then (late fall 2017) being introduced in Congress and how it would affect our undergraduate and graduate students. The Georgia district he represented is home to several colleges and universities:

  • Morehouse College
  • Spelman College
  • Clark Atlanta University
  • Morris Brown College
  • Morehouse School of Medicine
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Georgia State University
  • Emory University
  • Agnes Scott College
  • Clayton State University
  • Atlanta Metropolitan State College

Much work done in Congress happens through committees. Because Congressman Lewis didn’t serve on committees that overlapped much with AMS advocacy priorities, I didn’t have the opportunity to interact much with his office (in my work capacity here at AMS). I was impressed to find out that on his website he kept a list of his constituents who have received federal support for their work together with some general guidelines about how government awards work. This page was last updated in 2019 and includes active grants from the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) and the NSF. I find it meaningful that these are posted, usefully and proudly, on his website (I have not seen another congressional member’s website that includes this information though acknowledge they probably exist).

What would he want us to do, and what can we do to celebrate his life? He would want us to vote. John Lewis was one of the lead advocates for voting rights this country has ever had. He highlighted this in his legislative work; in his view,

“the vote is the most powerful, non-violent tool we have in a democratic society.”

Many of you reading this are professors and, in that position, have the wonderful opportunity (dare I say responsibility?) to encourage your students to vote. Ask your students what percentage of students they think votes. I used to do this when I still taught and they always—and I mean always—gave an overestimate. In our last presidential election in 2016, just over 46% of 18- to 29-year-olds turned out to vote (this % is of the citizen population in this age range). A bright spot in voting patterns is that in 2016 young voters ages 18 to 29 turned out to vote in greater numbers when compared to 2012, with a reported turnout increase of 1.1% (and, this is the only age group with an increase in participation from 2012 to 2016). Another bright spot is that in recent mid-term elections we have seen an even bigger increase in voter turnout in this age group—from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2081.

To honor his memory, I hope you will—if eligible—vote in November and encourage your students to do the same.


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More on Re-imagining the NSF

On June 9, I wrote in this blog about the Endless Frontier Act. It has come to my attention that my post may seem critical, and not enthusiastic about the bill. To the contrary, the bill is a tremendous show of support for mathematicians (and all scientific) researchers at universities. It is notable that a bipartisan group of congressional members are backing a bill that sees universities as critical—and central—partners in staying competitive globally (MIT President Rafael Reif has written about this in The Hill).

In the last section of my June 9 post, I attempted to describe what I think would be concerns in the math community about the bill and to explain that these concerns have been addressed by congressional staff leading the bill. In particular, the bill would not alter the mission, operation, or funding of the existing NSF directorates. The bill will continue to be refined as part of the Congressional process, and I—together with my counterparts in DC—will be working to further strengthen the protections for NSF’s current programs while supporting the proposed expansion.

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Re-imagining the National Science Foundation


Senators Schumer and Young, and Representatives Gallagher and Khanna have introduced legislation that would, if enacted into law, bring major changes to the NSF. There would be a new name for the agency, a major re-organization of internal structure, and a lot more money. A lot.

The Endless Frontier Act was introduced in late May. The congressional offices have been working on this legislation for a long time, and have sought input from scientific societies and university leaders. The current annual budget for the NSF is \$8.3 billion (fiscal year 2020). This bill would infuse \$100 billion over five years, additionally, to the NSF. Relatively speaking, you can see, this is remarkable. The title of the bill is a nod to the 1945 report by Vannevar Bush, written for President F.D. Roosevelt, which served as the impetus to launch the NSF.

The press is beginning to cover this. It is a big deal, politically speaking, that it comes from the Democratic Leader’s office. It is a very loud signal of support for the NSF, coming from a very important congressional voice. Independent of whether or not this becomes law, it sends a clear message that the country is seriously underinvesting in science. Rhetoric used in the press release tells us that staying globally competitive (think China) is a priority and at least partial motivation for the bill.

In the next section of this post I list details of the proposed legislation. After that, I will tell you about some of my concerns, and ways they have been addressed in the bill.

What’s in the proposed law?

According to the summary of the bill found on Senator Schumer’s website:

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation (NSTF) and task a new deputy director with executing the new funding of fundamental research related to specific recognized global technology challenges with geostrategic implications for the United States.
  • The new NSTF would have two Deputy Directors – one to oversee existing NSF operations and the other to oversee a newly established Technology Directorate. The bill would provide the new Directorate with flexible personnel, program management, and awarding authorities.
  • The new Directorate would be given DARPA-like authorities, with the option to utilize program managers for selecting awardees.
  • NSTF would have a newly-created Board of Advisors for the Directorate for Technology to advise the Deputy Director on how to strategically advance technology in the 10 key focus areas. The new board would not have decision-making authority and the National Science Board would retain its existing authorities.
  • The authorization for the new Directorate would be $100 billion over five years to reinvigorate American leadership in the discovery and application of key technologies that will define global competitiveness.
  • An additional \$10 billion would be authorized over five years for the Commerce Department to designate at least 10 regional technology hubs, awarding funds for comprehensive investment initiatives that position regions across the country to be global centers for the research, development, and manufacturing of key technologies.
  • The Directorate would be authorized to coordinate with the Department of Commerce and other federal departments and agencies on initiatives to build the regional technology hubs and to connect disadvantaged populations and places to new job and business opportunities developing key technologies.
  • In addition to carrying out its own activities, the Directorate could partner and provide funding to the rest of NSF and to other federal research entities when that would advance its objectives. The Directorate would be prohibited from taking money from other elements of NSF.
  • The new Directorate would fund research in the following technology focus areas:
  1. artificial intelligence and machine learning
  2. high performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware
  3. quantum computing and information systems
  4. robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing
  5. natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention
  6. advanced communications technology
  7. biotechnology, genomics, and synthetic biology
  8. advanced energy technology
  9. cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies
  10. materials science, engineering, and exploration relevant to the other focus areas

We would see

  • Increases in research spending at universities (which can form consortia that include private industry) to advance U.S. progress in key technology areas, including the creation of focused research centers
  • New undergraduate scholarships, industry training programs, graduate fellowships and traineeships and post-doctoral support in the targeted research areas to develop the U.S. workforce
  • The development of test-bed and fabrication facilities
  • Programs to facilitate and accelerate the transfer of new technologies from the lab to the marketplace, including expanding access to investment capital
  • Planning and coordination with state and local economic development stakeholders and the private sector to build regional innovation ecosystems
  • Increases in research spending for collaboration with U.S. allies, partners, and international organizations

Potential drawbacks?

On the one hand, who doesn’t want more money for the NSF that increases the amount of research done at universities, and gives more support to undergraduate and graduate students?

On the other hand, the NSF is the only science funding agency of the federal government that is not mission driven. Research proposals submitted to the NSF are curiosity-driven. To me, it is important for the agency to retain its autonomy to invest in promising and potentially risky proposals regardless of field, regardless of potential marketability. Would this law change that? Former NSF Director Arden Bement says it might.

And, there are already investments by the NSF in these research areas. How would they be affected? Would other directorates lose money to fund the new one? Would money from the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) and the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), for example, be diverted to this new directorate? In fact, the new directorate would be allowed to provide funds to other divisions but money would not be allowed to flow the other direction.

The bill itself is 79 pages long. On page 39 we see that “Appropriations limitations,” and a reference to “Hold harmless.” This means that the \$100 billion would not be allowed if the normally appropriated amount (the amount that is now \$8.3 billion) is not in place. Immediately following on the same page, we see “No transfer of funds”; this ensures that money cannot flow from DMS, for example, to this new directorate. However, the new directorate could, for example, decide to direct money to cryptography research through DMS.

I appreciate that many mathematicians might not like the name change suggestion, or the focus on research that is not “basic” or “fundamental.” I hope, should this bill pass to law, that it is always remembered that translational research cannot happen without basic research. Many mathematicians, might find the “competition with China” argument troubling. Though I don’t know how the bill will be amending and changed as it works through Congress, I do feel confident that staff working on this bill have heard all these concerns.

The Endless Frontier Act bill text can be found here and a summary can be found here.



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Support Our International Students and Faculty Colleagues: Update


Since I last wrote about this topic on May 13, many of you have responded to our call to Take Action. To date, over 400 mathematicians have written their congressional delegations using the link. Senators and Representatives in 35 states have already been contacted. I am grateful and humbled by this immense support for our international students and colleagues.

On April 30, the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) had its biannual meeting. JPBM decided to, and has now issued a statement concerning potential impacts of the April 22 Presidential Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak. The statement was sent to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). OSTP head Kelvin Droegemeier joined us for part of the JPBM meeting; the immigration proclamation was one of several topics we discussed with him.

JPBM is particularly concerned with Section 6, “Additional Measures”, which mandates that a review be undertaken of all “nonimmigrant programs” with the intention of ensuring “the prioritization, hiring, and employment of United States workers.” We are concerned about the broad nature of the directive outlined in Section 6 and the implications it carries for nonimmigrant visa programs and our international students.

The full JPBM statement is found here:

The expectation is that President Trump will extend and expand the initial April 22 order. Among the programs the administration is expected to restrict is Optional Practical Training (OPT), which permits foreign STEM students on F-1 visas to work in the U.S. for up to three years post-graduation. The JPBM letter is part of a very large effort to prevent such extension and expansion. Additionally, the AMS was one of 36 scientific societies writing on May 20 to the White House about this. On May 21, a group of over 300 higher education groups and businesses wrote them about L-1, H-1B, F-1, and H-4 nonimmigrant visas and OPT. Each letter takes a slightly different angle, and all efforts amplify the others.

I am not optimistic about this and find it personally quite disturbing. I’m a second/third generation American, married to a non-US citizen and–like almost anyone I imagine reading this–have so many friends, students, and colleagues who will be negatively affected by further changes of the types being discussed to these programs . President Trump is using this vehicle (of Presidential proclamations) to put in place immigration policies being pushed by his senior advisor Stephen Miller, and considered a plus for his re-election. Articles like this Politico article and this Forbes article discuss this, and give more letters and talking points on this topic. This is a moving target; stay tuned.

JPBM consists of the American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. The four societies have nearly 90,000 members, and the Board represents the mathematics and statistics community in policy discussions.


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Support Our International Students and Faculty Colleagues


On April 22, President Trump issued a “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak.” Section 6 requires a review of non-immigrant visa programs, and it is expected that there will be future suspensions and extensions of restrictions on immigration.

Non-immigrant visa programs enable the best and brightest from around the world to contribute to scientific advancement in the U.S.. In fact, international students comprise a majority of doctoral candidates in a number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. I am especially concerned that international students currently in the US completing their educational program may be subject to an expanded ban.[1]

We need your help to ensure our international students and faculty colleagues are able to come to campus in the fall! I am working to ensure that international student and scholar programs, including Optional Practical Training for F-1 students (OPT), not be included in future immigration bans. What can you do? I have posted a “Take Action” whereby you can write your own Congressional delegation urging them to protect international students and scholars. This link gives you an editable letter; if you choose not to supply a personal story, it will take you less than a minute to Take Action. The review period ends on May 22, and best if you do this soon!

In mathematics, the majority of PhD students studying in the U.S. are from other countries. Of the new mathematics doctorates earned at U.S. institutions during the 2016-2017 academic year, 46 percent of those awarded at large and medium-sized public institutions went to candidates from outside of the U.S.  At all other PhD granting institutions, including at all large private schools, the majority were issued to foreign students.  It should be noted that these figures are not uniform across sub-disciplines.  In the field of statistics, for example, only 34 percent of doctoral degrees given by U.S. institutions were awarded to U.S.-based candidates. 

U.S. consulates around the world are closing, severely limiting international students and scholars the opportunity to pursue their education and research here. This deeply affects the future finances of our colleges and universities, and existentially threatens some of them. At the same time that the U.S. is limiting the number of visiting students and scholars, other countries are providing warm welcomes. This loss of talent will not only lead to difficult years for higher education in the short term, but will affect our businesses and economy for decades.

While some international students who need visas have been able to schedule visa-interview appointments, many still cannot, and others receive interview dates well beyond the start of their academic programs, including graduate students. At the same time, our current international students need continued support in their efforts to participate in experiential learning through OPT and STEM OPT.

I hope the government will step up and support temporary measures to support student visa processing in a timely manner this year that will accommodate the requirements of the academic calendar. And, that these changes be communicated quickly and clearly to potential applicants. The recent projections of a 25 percent decline or more in international student enrollment for fall 2020 threaten colleges and universities, and will have a long-term impact on American jobs and crucial research, including research related to responding to and preventing health pandemics. A dramatic decline in international students—including their direct economic contributions to local communities and the jobs they support—will only further dampen our economic rebound. All told, during the 2018-19 academic year, one million international students and their families contributed approximately $40 billion to our national economy, and the economic impact of our international student community more than tripled in the last ten years.[2]

I also hope modifications are made to support the OPT programs, including an extension period of up to 60 additional days to secure a qualifying on-the-job training experience related to the degree completed at a U.S. university or college. This support is particularly critical as reducing OPT would lead to a total job loss over the next decade of 443,000 positions and 255,000 job reduction for native-born workers, according to a Business Roundtable report.[3]

We can easily feel a small player in mathematics, but we play a crucial role educating all future STEM workers and are a vitally important department on every college and university campus. Congressional leaders care a lot about the health of higher education institutions in their states and districts. I appreciate your efforts to work with them.

[1] Proclamation No. 10014, 85 Fed. Reg. 23,441 (April 22, 2020).

[3] The Economic Impact of Curbing the Optional Practical Training Program, Business Roundtable, (last visited May 4, 2020).

Posted in Advocacy, Graduate students, Higher Education, Immigration | Tagged , | 1 Comment