02/17/2013 12:06 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2013

Immigration Reform Could Lead to Great Things, Including Better Science and Better Science Education

As the president of the only graduate institution in the United States devoted solely to bioscience education and discovery, I am fortunate to come in contact with some of the brightest young people in the world as they prepare for their future careers in the life sciences. Almost one-third of our student body is made up of international students, primarily from Asia. So, it's hardly surprising that like many Americans, I've been following the immigration reform debate closely and that I'm particularly encouraged by the prospect of revamping the existing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) visa system, including proposed legislation that would award green cards to the top foreign-born STEM graduates of U.S. schools.

When discussing the benefits of such reform, much of the dialogue has centered on the economic benefits of allowing those educated in the STEM fields to stay in the U.S. after they graduate. In his State of the Union speech President Obama talked about attracting "the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy." And, when introducing the Immigration Innovation Act, which would increase the number of STEM visas and use the fees obtained from those visa applications to fund STEM education programs within the U.S., Sen. Marc Rubio of Florida stated that "For every 100 foreign-born STEM workers, they create 260 some odd jobs." Another frequently cited fact involves the number of Silicon Valley start-ups founded or co-founded by immigrants -- from 1995 to 2005, approximately half of Silicon Valley startups had an immigrant founder, with billions being added to the U.S. and global economies as a result. Don't misunderstand me; the economic argument is an incredibly strong one. The success of our educational model here at KGI is dependent upon close ties with industry, and we strive to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship in all our students.

However, there are numerous advantages to allowing young foreign-born professionals with a STEM education to establish their careers in the U.S.; many of which may not be so readily quantifiable -- at least not within a decade-long span -- but which are just as valuable. For a start, the number of students coming to the U.S. from certain "key" STEM countries, such as India, has dropped off or remained flat in recent years. Improved prospects of immigration will enable the U.S. to retain its role as the primary "meeting ground" for the next-generation of analysts, innovators, industry leaders and problem-solvers. And, the seeds of great things do happen when smart young scientists, researchers and professionals from all over the world come together. I see it every day: in a young research scientist from India and a Ph.D student from Puerto Rico who are working together to create a new cell line that could lead to better treatments for Huntington's disease (a more "common" rare disease, with approximately 200,000 Americans at risk of inheriting the disease from an affected parent), or in a young Ph.D candidate and practicing physician who has come to the U.S. from Mumbai to learn more about how drugs are developed and brought to market. She is now working with a non-profit organization to write an orphan-drug designation (ODD) for a therapy that has the potential to improve the lives of those suffering from Tay-Sachs and Sandhoff diseases.

These students and young researchers not only do amazing things while they're here but their ideas and their drive enhances the quality of education for all of our students and the quality of life for all of our citizens. There can be a multiplying effect to innovation when international knowledge and ideas gain their own traction in homegrown academic institutions and industries. German rocket scientists who came to work in the U.S. in the wake of World War II were not solely responsible for landing Neil Armstrong on the moon. But they were the core from which a great international community of scholars and engineers were able to take NASA to astounding heights. The input of international students teaches all of our students how to integrate ideas that may vary greatly from their own and how to approach problems from a global perspective -- two skills that are required for success in the life science industry and that we need if we are to continue to remain the world leader in the rapidly advancing biotechnologies, such as individualized human genome sequencing. Reforming our immigration system so that more young professionals like these have the option to work in the United States not only boosts the national economy and strengthens the biotech hubs here in Southern California, which are so important to my state's economy, it also improves the quality of U.S. academic institutions, and, ultimately, is likely to hasten the pace of scientific discovery and innovation. It will certainly go a long way toward keeping the U.S. and its academic institutions at the center of such discovery and innovation.