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Losing America's Secret Weapon

Author: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow
October 13, 2009
Forbes Online


The furor over Barack Obama's Nobel Peace prize has unfortunately diverted attention from the real story of this year's prizes. The Nobel Prizes for science were about as close to a clean sweep for the United States as it's possible to get. Every one of the nine winners in physics, chemistry and medicine is either an American citizen or spent a significant portion of their scientific careers in this country.

The awards demonstrate a simple truth: The United States has been the big winner in an open, global scientific enterprise with America and its universities at the center. Yet we are jeopardizing that very system through shortsighted immigration restrictions that make it needlessly difficult for the most talented and ambitious scientists to come here and remain.

Science is a star system, and like sports, music or acting the brightest stars come from all corners of the world. Three of this year's prizewinners--George Smith, Carol Greider and Thomas Steitz--were born and raised in the United States. Two are from Canada, traveled south to do their research and stayed. Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared the prize in physiology and medicine for her work on the fundamental structure of cells, was born in Tasmania and educated in Australia and Britain. She went to Yale to do her post-doctoral research and remained in the U.S.

Charles Kao of China, who shared the physics prize for his pioneering work on fiber optic communications, did his graduate work in Britain, and then went to work for many years at ITT in Virginia and Connecticut before returning to Hong Kong. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who shared the chemistry prize for his DNA research, was born in India, earned his Ph.D. from Ohio University, worked at several U.S. universities and carried out his path breaking research at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. All five of those born outside the U.S. now hold American citizenship. The only non-American--Ada Yonath of Israel--did her postdoctoral work at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT.

It is sometimes argued that foreign-born scientists discourage American students from pursuing scientific careers. But the best evidence is that mixing talented foreigners and talented Americans creates the most fertile ground for scientific advancement, and that foreign scientists help to make American scientists more productive.

There are direct economic benefits as well. The kinds of scientific breakthroughs recognized by the Nobel committees frequently have commercial applications. About one-third of America's star scientists end up commercializing their discoveries, spawning companies in the most innovative and rapidly growing industries like biotechnology, semiconductors and lasers.

While the Nobel announcements should rightly be a source of pride, the problem with Nobel Prizes is that they are backward looking. The value of a scientific breakthrough is often apparent only in the rear-view mirror, and the prizes awarded this week were for work done many years ago.

Will the prizes of two decades hence still be so heavily tilted to the United States? America's research universities are the biggest reason that foreign scientists and engineers come to the United States. Yet foreign enrollment stalled after the 9/11 attacks when new visa controls made it more difficult for overseas students to come here. While most of the visa obstacles have now been eased, other countries have taken advantage and sharply increased their own foreign student numbers. It is particularly worrisome that foreign enrollment in U.S. graduate science and engineering program dropped nearly 20% from 2001 to 2004, and has yet to recover to pre-9/11 levels.

Further, the road from foreign graduate student to American citizen scientist has become longer, harder and more expensive. Strict limits on the number of temporary work visas make it difficult for many to remain in the U.S. For those who do get work permission, the waiting period for green cards and permanent residence can stretch out a decade or more, especially for Indians and Chinese who make up the majority of foreign students in the sciences. Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University has warned of a "reverse brain drain" as more of these would-be immigrants are growing frustrated and opting instead for other countries, or returning home as greater opportunities emerge in their own countries. This will accelerate the loss of research and development work, which would seriously threaten the U.S. lead in innovation.

These problems are on the radar of Congress and others in Washington. New York senator Charles Schumer has promised to introduce immigration reform legislation that would "encourage the world's best and brightest individuals to come to the U.S. and create the new technologies and businesses." But work has stalled with the legislative calendar already overcrowded with health care reform, financial regulation, climate change and other issues.

We cannot afford to keep waiting. This year's Nobelists are a testimony to how the United States has succeeded in science. But we should heed Dr. Jack Szostak, the London-born Canadian cum American who shared the medicine prize, who cautions that the world has become much more competitive in science. As he said: "Maybe we have to work a little harder to attract people from around the world and make sure they stay here."

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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