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Nobel Prizes again underscore the importance of immigration to academia

Friday, December 9, 2016

This year’s Nobel prizes in Chemistry and Physics, as well as the prize in Economic sciences, were presented to some of the world’s greatest minds. Continuing in our role as a leader on the cutting edge of scientific research, the United States had representatives in each category. In fact, both winners of the economics prize and all three winners of the physics prize, represent American universities.
However, all of the 2016 Nobel Prize winners from the U.S. have one other thing in common: They are all immigrants. Not one of the Nobel winners in sciences, who represent U.S. universities, was born in the United States.
The winners of the prize in Economic Sciences, Oliver Hart (Harvard) and Bengt Holmström (M.I.T.), were born in the U.K. and Finland, respectively. The recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics represent the University of Washington, Princeton and Brown. Yet, all three of the winners — David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz — are natives of the United Kingdom. And Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, 2016 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, representing Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., was born in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Without immigration, U.S. academic institutions would have walked away empty-handed in this year’s science prizes. Instead, six of the eight 2016 science laureates are immigrants working at U.S. universities. This is remarkably clear evidence that immigration is vital the academic health of the United States.
In the United States, business leaders, academic and government officials have long been warning about an ever-growing gap between the supply of qualified graduates and the demand for employees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. With baby boomers retiring, technology booming and U.S. college students seemingly disinterested in the sciences, the gap could reach 1 million unfilled positions by 2025.
Academia and the tech sector have taken a more global perspective on the available talent pool, seeking to fill STEM positions with qualified foreign scientists. Clearly, in light of this year’s Nobel Prize results, this is a strategy that pays off. However, the United States remains hobbled by visa quotas that are more than a quarter-century old:  Before proliferation of cell phones, the Internet and the World Wide Web; and long before the advent of the mobile revolution.
The United States simply cannot remain globally competitive in academia or business without the ability to draw from the largest possible pool of brainpower. Without a hard look at immigration reform, the United States’ chances for future Nobel Prize winners could dwindle.

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