Where Will All the Talent Come From?  Research and Immigration in the United States

The combination of Babyboomer retirements and a mismatch between what the workforce needs and what training and education produce likely foretells a labor shortage in the United States that will put upward pressure on compensation and, if not addressed, forestall higher rates of economic growth. The impact on research-intensive sectors, including the biomedical one, could be severe, especially if the past 60 years’ inflow of talent from abroad declines due to tighter immigration laws or, perhaps more likely, the perception that the United States is less welcoming to foreign talent than has heretofore been the case.

Our study of the impact of Indian immigrants on academic engineering was clear and profound as more than 60 per cent of the engineering doctorates awarded by American universities from the 1970s through the early part of the 21st Century were made to first- and second-generation Indians. 

Similar but more anecdotal in nature is our impression that medical and biomedical research benefits substantially from participation by persons whose origins are outside the country.

None of this is new. After the First but especially after the Second World Wars, scholars and researchers from Europe and then Asia and South America moved to American universities and major research laboratories and were important contributors to major discoveries and inventions. No less a persona than Albert Einstein spent the last 23 years of his life at Princeton.

Leave aside for the moment the political and strategic implications of an America that is or appears to be less open to talented scientists and researchers, where will those important persons come from if not abroad?

The good news is that the domestic pipeline of Americans interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) was recognized within the past decade or so as inadequate to the need for the knowledge and skills embodied by those fields, especially with respect to the presence and numbers of women and persons of color pursuing study therein. As a result, early signs are that students, including female and ethnic and racial groups, are not only pursuing studies in STEM fields but also benefitting from efforts to better integrate the four fields rather than “silo” each. Whether these efforts will be sufficient to produce the numbers of persons well-versed in research remains unclear. After all, education is a local and state responsibility, not a national one, and goals of a national scope result, but are not necessarily produced according to some overarching plan.

Immigration, on the other hand, is a national matter and what policy and law are in that domain can have direct and more immediate effect on the capacity of the country to undertake research in areas of importance and produce the new knowledge required to sustain a society today. It may be that changes in immigration policy and law in the mid-1960s that encouraged large numbers of Indian, Pakistani, Taiwanese, and other nationalities to migrate to America did indeed further national goals in science and technology. It remains to be seen whether the early signs of a diminution of immigration will have the reverse effect.


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