Immigrant Heritage Month: Celebrating Heroes Within the US Scientific Community

June is Immigrant Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the indispensable role that immigrants have played in shaping the character and success of America over the last 245 years. It’s also an opportunity to offer support and encouragement to the next generation of immigrants who will continue to make the US a leader in the natural sciences. If past performance is any indicator of future performance, it’s entirely likely that the next great American scientist isn’t even American…yet.

Nikola Tesla, born and raised in the Austrian Empire, became a naturalized US citizen in 1884 and went on to achieve some of his most important work as an American. Enrico Fermi fled Italy’s racial laws in 1938, and, in the US, went on to become the lead physicist on the Manhattan Project. There are dozens of superstar scientists who started elsewhere, only to become a household name for their work in the United States. And there are countless others whose scientific contributions have significantly changed the world we live in for the better.

The biggest challenges facing science today aren’t limited to individual nations. Reversing climate change, achieving interplanetary travel, and ending pandemics are all global issues that require the scientific community to pull from a global pool of talent. But the US can still be the hub for scientific innovation that it’s been since the early 20th century.

To do so, it will need to support the brilliant minds from across the world who are dedicated to solving the most pressing global issues. It will also need to let go of its decidedly unscientific nativist thinking.

Why Immigration Reform is Central to the Future Success of US Science

In September 2019, over a dozen foreign students got ready to board flights for the US. It wasn’t a vacation: they were going to join graduate programs at American universities, and perform research in fields like computer science and engineering. Each of them had undergone lengthy screening processes to earn their student visas. But, at the last minute, all their visas were canceled by US officials. No reason was given. The only thing these students had in common, besides exemplary talent in the sciences, was their nationality: Iranian.

For nearly 100 years, the US has been the global leader in scientific research, a position predicated upon its ability to pull in the greatest minds from across the world. Between 1901 and 2015, over 40 percent of all Nobel Prizes have gone to Americans, nearly a third of whom were foreign-born. But this scientific dominance is threatened by increasingly restrictive immigration policies, from the security measures designed in the wake of 9/11 to the contentious travel ban ordered by the Trump Administration. Foreign applications to graduate-level scientific programs in America have fallen since 2017.

Imagine if Einstein’s initial entry into the US had been denied. With America’s current immigration laws, something like that could easily happen. Even worse, it might have already.

Science is collaborative. It requires the exchange of different ideas, information, and viewpoints in order to bear results. These exchanges can’t be done solely online. Science is global, but also highly differentiated, with experts in seemingly obscure fields of study scattered across the planet. America’s dominance in the field of science has come, in part, from its ability to not only send its scientists abroad, but also in its ability to lure scientists to research and train at America’s top research facilities.

How Nativist US Immigration Laws Threaten the Future of Scientific Progress

Despite having some of the best research and educational facilities in the world, America’s immigration laws threaten its ability to attract and retain the world’s top scientific minds. Many foreign students are trained in the US, and, due to visa policies, are forced to return to their home country, where they end up competing against, instead of collaborating with, the country that trained them.

In theory, scientific knowledge is easily transferred across borders. And if America doesn’t take the top talent in these fields, another country will. In 2015, foreigners in the US accounted for 30 percent of the country’s college-educated science and engineering workforce. Nearly a quarter of all US patents since 2007 had at least one non-US citizen inventor. Over 40 percent of the top cancer researchers in the country are foreign-born. America had six Nobel Prize winners in 2016—all were foreign-born.

And, still, there’s more where that came from: most foreigners working towards American PhDs in science and engineering have plans to stay in the United States after graduation. These are the sort of people that America would be unwise to lose, and unwiser still to give away.

The American Society for Cell Biology’s Recommendations on Immigration

When one achieves dominance for an extended period of time, there’s a natural tendency towards complacency. But scientific innovation isn’t a field that’s forgiving to such an attitude. Accordingly, in 2017, the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) renewed a call for immigration reform by laying out four recommendations:

  1. Ease restrictions on foreign travel by visa holders. The collaborative and international nature of science, as a discipline, demands that researchers travel abroad. Travel restrictions for visa holders limit their opportunities for educational or professional advancement, deprive scientific conferences of key voices, restrict the ability of researchers to collaborate with other specialists, and impede meaningful scientific exchange. Easing these restrictions would nurture the scientific talent already admitted to the US and lure in more.
  2. Match visa durations to training time. The current visa regime is messy, with many international students arriving in the US on an F-1 visa, proceeding to postdoctoral training on a J-1 visa, and then finally completing professional training on an H1-B visa. The bureaucracy between steps is needlessly cumbersome: those who hold a J-1 visa often have to halt their studies and research in order to return to their home country (sometimes for up to two years) before applying for and receiving the necessary H1-B visa. A more seamless process would streamline America’s scientific innovation.
  3. Base the supply of H1-B visas on market demands. Despite the demand for H1-B visas growing by as much as 20 percent year over year, the number of such visas issued has remained at a static 65,000 per year. That means that the US is ignoring what could be an even larger influx of scientific talent. Unless a more proportional number of H1-B visas are issued, that scientific talent is going to go elsewhere. Other nations are already increasing their version of these visas, and a failure for the US to keep pace would see it fall further behind.
  4. Give foreign students green cards upon completion of their studies. Currently, American immigration policy makes it difficult for international students who are trained in the US to stay in the country. Furthermore, many American companies don’t offer visa support. As a result, many highly talented international students return to their home country and compete against the US, instead of for it. This is an abject loss: if the US trains and educates an international student, it should also seek to reap the benefit of their work. Offering freshly-minted PhDs a green card would incentivize scientific talent to stay and work in the US.

Objectively, it’s an attractive bargain: you encourage the most brilliant people in the world to come to your country and in return, they work for you and make discoveries on your behalf. It’s so attractive, in fact, that every country in the world is offering some form of it to young scientific talent.

America’s offer isn’t necessarily the best out there, but this country’s history of dominance in the areas of scientific research has so far made up for what’s lacking. But without reforms to its immigration policies, that dominance won’t last. Over three-quarters of US adults already believe the country should encourage the immigration of highly skilled workers. Policymakers should wise up and listen to their constituents.

Resources for Immigrant Heritage Month

Whether you’re looking for ways to support immigrants in the scientific community, or just interested in learning more about the ways in which immigration is crucial for maintaining America’s place as the leader in scientific innovation, check out some of the resources below.

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): Founded in 1848, AAAS seeks to advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people. AAAS is a major force in shaping science policy and strongly supports immigration reform. Learn more about their Science Beyond Borders program here.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): The ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project is dedicated to expanding the civil liberties and civil rights of the nation’s 41 million immigrants.
  • American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB): Founded in 1960, ASCB is an inclusive, international community of biologists studying the cell, the fundamental unit of life. They also have a strong reputation as a leader in life science policy and advocacy and have repeatedly called for immigration reform as a necessary enabler of the US scientific community.
  • National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES): Science is driven by facts, not rhetoric, and NCSES has published several data sets that show the importance and impact of immigrants in the US scientific community.
  • National Science Foundation (NSF): The US National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that advances fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments, and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the US as a global leader in research and innovation.
  • US Chamber of Commerce: Scientific innovation is big business. That’s one of the reasons why the US Chamber of Commerce endorses immigration reform that would raise the caps on employment-based visas.
Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in medical technology, particularly the modernization of the medical laboratory and the network effects of both health data management and health IT. In consultation with professors, practitioners, and professional associations, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best. For, he’s interviewed leaders and subject matter experts at the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).