We Need To Talk About The Impact Of Open Borders On Science

11/07/2016 08:38 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2016
Front of the medal of the Nobel Prize, featuring a profile of Alfred Nobel, isolated on a black background.
National Cancer Institute
Front of the medal of the Nobel Prize, featuring a profile of Alfred Nobel, isolated on a black background.

I think it’s safe to say that this election cycle has sufficiently depressed us all at one point or another. It’s easy to lose sight of some things which make America, despite having its shortcomings, a great nation.

According to the latest U.S. News report, seventeen of the top twenty ranked universities in the world are American institutions. We dominate in the number of Nobel prize awardees, with more than double the number of laureates from the U.K., second place. We spend the most money on research, have the most Olympic gold medals, and have put more men on the moon than anyone else!

As an immigrant, I’m keenly interested in what presidential candidates and pundits have to say about the future of immigration policy in the United States. I may not be able to vote yet, but like everyone else, I certainly have a stake in the outcome. Having said that, one specific aspect of immigration we seem to have missed in our discourse over the last two years, for whatever reason, is the impact of immigration on science in America.

Science has consistently been a driver of economic growth and progress in the 20th and 21st centuries; without it, there would be no technological innovation. America’s fertile atmosphere for entrepreneurship, discovery, and invention paves the way for companies like Google, Apple, IBM, General Electric, and Boston Scientific. Incidentally, all those companies were founded by immigrants, and children of immigrants. In fact, taken alone, the combined revenues of Fortune 500 companies founded by immigrants constitute the world’s third largest economy besides the United States. Many of these businesses create jobs, wealth, and gradually elevate the standard of living of everyone in the nation.

But it’s not all just corporations with annual revenues in the billions.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906-1972) was the second and most recent female Nobel prize winner in Physics. She was an immigrant fr
Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906-1972) was the second and most recent female Nobel prize winner in Physics. She was an immigrant from what is now Poland.

Six Americans were awarded the Nobel prize this year, and not one of them was born in the United States. In 2013, the National Science Foundation revealed that immigrants continue to play an increasing role in our science and engineering workforce, reporting 29 million scientists and engineers currently residing in United States, 18% of which are immigrants. What’s more, the National Foundation for American Policy reports roughly 70% of full-time graduate enrollments in electrical engineering programs are international students, and 63% in computer science, and the trend continues within other STEM fields.

I consider myself fortunate to be among that immigrant population. As a Syrian immigrant, I feel privileged to live in a country which holds to values of egalitarianism and cultural tolerance. As a young scientist, however, I’m delighted to see a consistent bipartisan agreement to invest heavily in science and research, despite the unprecedented rhetoric we hear from both sides.

Most immigrants and refugees recognize the privileges they enjoy here, and feel an urge to make their own contributions to society in return. This is likely even truer in the case of refugees, because not only is a large part of their success owed to the community, but in many cases, they owe their very life to the country which welcomed them.

The Genius Visa

The statistics I listed above are in large part the consequence of two bureaucratic gems called the H-1B and O-1 visas, sometimes dubbed as the ‘genius visas’.

Although, in a hilariously flattering way, the U.S. Immigration Service calls the O-1 a visa for “aliens with extraordinary ability”.

Given our resources, our education systems are far from domestically creating a critical mass of the sort of highly skilled scientists and engineers that are international leaders in their respective fields. Instead, the reality is that these visas are what built the backbone of innovative research in America.

We’re faced with two disparate nominees on the ticket this year, in a more polarized atmosphere than we’ve seen in a very long time. We should strive to uphold the traditions of charity and acceptance that have persevered for generations. Let’s ensure that we continue to invite people to improve the American condition and, by extension, the world’s.

We’re great precisely because of our differences...not despite them

This country has a spectacularly efficient and self-perpetuating cycle of harnessing the potential and ambition of its immigrants, welcoming fresh ideas and new perspectives.

America doesn’t belong to any one group of people for them to want to ‘take it back’. Our greatness and strength as a nation hasn’t developed despite the divergence of our cultures and ideologies; instead, it’s precisely because of those differences that we continue to lead the world in innovation. Given the current political climate, young immigrants need to know that they, too, belong in America, and that America has become a better nation for having embraced them.

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