Fresh Blood and Ideas

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This year’s crop of Nobel Prizes in the sciences gives rise to some interesting thoughts.

A comforting thought is that out of the nine winners, eight were Americans. Once again, America maintains its lead in science and technology.

Worrisome thoughts start when you notice that most of these eight American Nobelists are immigrants. Five moved here from abroad (one each from Australia, Britain, Canada, China, and India). This is nothing new – since 1901, one fourth of all American Nobel Prize winners have been immigrants. Today, over 400/0 of all Ph.D.-level scientists working in America are foreign-born, as are one-third of the engineers and scientists in Silicon Valley. A quarter of all international patents filed from our country in 2006 had a noncitizen listed as inventor or co-inventor.

The worry about these stats is twofold. First, they raise the suspicion that the American educational system is weakening when it comes to producing home-grown scientists. Second, they raise questions about our immigration policy.

Under existing law, we are nationalizing fewer than a million new citizens a year, turning away millions of highly educated people. And of those who do get naturalized, preference is given to relatives of existing citizens. We give out visas for highly trained knowledge workers (such as non-university employed engineers) to only a fraction of the tens of thousands who apply.

We need to increase the number of legal immigrants dramatically, and do so in the way many other countries do: admit immigrants under a points system. Anyone with a degree in engineering, science, or medicine gets points – the higher the degree, the more the points. Speaking English well would also get the candidate points, as would objective indicators of success (such as possession of patents, capital, or business ownership). Take the top two million applicants each year, after doing background checks.

Far from increasing unemployment, this would help get America out of the doldrums. A recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that each H-1B visa (that’s the one for high-tech foreign workers) granted by the government increases employment in American firms by five employees.

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