The enclosed op-ed by MIT president Susan Hockfield is basically a recycling of arguments used by the industry lobbyists in support of expansive policies for the H-1B work visa and employer-sponsored green cards. [Immigrant Scientists Create Jobs and Win Nobels | It's crazy to drive away talented young scholars. By Susan Hockfield, The Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2009] As such I would ordinarily not comment, but there is an new example Hockfield brings up that I will relate to an important issue I've discussed in the past.Email Susan Hockfield.
I just recently commented on a similar op-ed that highlighted the immigrant background of some of this year's American Nobel laureates; see here. There I detail themes I've stressed over the years:
1. I strongly support facilitating the immigration of "the best and the brightest."
2. However, the vast majority of H-1Bs are not in the "best and brightest" league.
3. The presence of the foreign workers is causing an internal brain drain in the U.S., by making careers in science and engineering financially unattractive.
4. Our National Science Foundation, whose job it is to fund university research, explicitly called for bring in a lot of foreign scientists and engineers in order to hold down PhD salaries. Why would they do this? Simple—the NSF, being in the research business, wants to get the most bang for its buck, and thus benefits from low PhD salaries (and low PhD student stipends, again kept low by the swelling of the labor market). Most importantly, the NSF forecast, correctly, that the resulting stagnant salaries would discourage Americans from pursuing PhDs.
I should note that several subscribers of this e-newsletter are MIT graduates, now in mid-career age but have had trouble finding tech employment in the last 10 years. My guess is that President Hockfield is unaware of this situation, and of the fact that a core reason that employers want to hire H-1Bs is that they are younger, thus cheaper, so that the H-1B program gives employers a means of avoiding hiring older Americans.
The new example Hockfield uses is Technology Review's list of Top Innovators Under 35 for 2009 (http://www.technologyreview.com/TR35). She writesOf the 35 young innovators recognized this year by Technology Review magazine for their exceptional new ideas, only six went to high school in the United States.Needless to say, one should be cautious in taking a magazine list so seriously, but let's accept it and discuss some of its implications.
First of all, there is my internal brain drain point above. The H-1B program caused it—and remember, the NSF knowingly promoted this—and thus one should not conclude that H-1B has increased net innovation in the U.S. It has brought in some innovators, but also pushed some innovators out of tech.
Second, the surnames of those 35, there are only five Indians and three Chinese. That's in contrast to the fact that among H-1Bs, and indeed among foreign engineering grad students, the vast majority are Indians and Chinese. This underrepresentation in the awards of the Indians and Chinese illustrates my point that the H-1B and employer-sponsored green card programs are NOT generally bringing in the best and the brightest.
Note carefully that I am not saying that there are no innovative Indians or Chinese. I have my own list of brilliant immigrants from those countries. Instead, I'm simply saying that the nationality data show that these foreign-worker programs are generally not about hiring the best and the brightest.
This disconnect between TR's innovator data and the H-1B demographics meshes with what David Hart of George Mason University found recently , as well as one aspect of a study by McGill University's Jennifer Hunt and my CIS article.
Again, I very strongly support bringing in the best and the brightest, whether they be Chinese or Indian or Russian or Nigerian. But a key point is that current immigration policy already has a separate mechansim for doing this that works well, a specialized version of employer-sponsored green cards called EB-1, Foreign Nationals of Extraordinary Ability. Processing is very quick, in contrast to the five years or more wait for ordinary green cards. Yes, you really have to be good to get EB-1, but then isn't that the point?
Speaking of policy, Hockfield is incorrect in claiming,Our immigration laws specifically require that students return to their home countries after earning their degrees and then apply for a visa if they want to return and work in the U.S.This is false, as MIT's International Students Office could have explained to Hockfield in detail.
Finally, the big news on the MIT campus is that President Obama will visit this Friday, to give an address on energy. I wonder if he will talk about "innovation" and maybe allude to foreign workers. Another thing he might do is increase the stipend in the NSF traineeships, which would help a bit to stem the internal STEM brain drain.
It's always hard for the person at the top, be it Hockfield or Obama, to know what's going on in real life, sad to say.