NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 21, 2009

Of the nine people who shared this year's Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and medicine, eight are American citizens, a testament to this country's support for pioneering research.  But those numbers disguise a more important story.  Four of the American winners were born outside of the United States and only came here as graduate or post-doctoral students or as scientists.  They came because our system of higher education and advanced research has been a magnet for creative talent, says Susan Hockfield, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Unfortunately, we cannot count on that magnetism to last.  Culturally, we remain a very open society. But that openness stands in sharp contrast to arcane U.S. immigration policies that discourage young scholars from settling in the United States, says Hockfield.

Those policies come at a high price.  Graduate and postgraduate student immigrants are essential to creating new, well-paid jobs in our economy, explains Hockfield:

  • Of the 35 young innovators recognized this year by Technology Review magazine for their exceptional new ideas, only six went to high school in the United States.
  • From MIT alone, foreign graduates have founded an estimated 2,340 active United States companies that employ over 100,000 people.

Amazingly, if as incoming students they had told U.S. immigration authorities that they hoped to stay on as entrepreneurs after graduation, they would have been turned back at the border.  Our immigration laws specifically require that students return to their home countries after earning their degrees and then apply for a visa if they want to return and work in the United States.  It would be hard to invent a policy more counterproductive to our national interest, says Hockfield.

If the United States was the only country in the world that offered scholars scientific freedom, a cumbersome immigration process might not be that harmful.  But the world today is teeming with well-funded opportunities to do first-class science.  To be competitive, the United States needs to send the unmistakable message that we want scholars to stay, says Hockfield.

To do that we need the kind of broad new immigration policy that would allow foreign students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math to easily become legal permanent residents, says Hockfield.

Source:  Susan Hockfield, "Immigrant Scientists Create Jobs and Win Nobels ," The Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2009.


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