The San Jose Mercury News ran a column today that purports to "prove" that an expansive immigration policy is good because some of this year's American Nobel prize winners are immigrants. [O'Brien: Nobel prizes remind us why immigration matters, By Chris O'Brien, San Jose Mercury News, October 6, 2009]Though this column was predictable, I wish there had been some nuance mixed in with the trite and simplistic.
As longtime readers of this e-newsletter know, I've always strongly supported the notion of welcoming "the best and the brightest" to the U.S. from around the globe. I've not only written that, but acted on it, such as by pushing my department colleagues to vote in favoring of hiring some foreign faculty applicants that I felt were brilliant.
Though I have some misgivings of the nature of the selection process for the Nobels these days, and would point out that for every one who gets the prize, there are hundreds who are just as talented, I do agree that Nobel laureates are super researchers who richly deserve the honor. I was told a couple of years ago, coincidentally by a reader of this e-newsletter, that Elizabeth Blackburn is especially bright.
But it's absurd to use these immigrant Nobel laureates as support for the H-1B visa program, as the columnist here is doing. As I have shown statistically, only a tiny fraction of H-1Bs are of extraordinary talent. Most are ordinary people, doing ordinary work—for less money than Americans. This is statistical fact, not rumor or folklore, shown in many academic and government studies. And it's perfectly legal to underpay H-1Bs (noted even by the GAO, as well in public statements by lawyers), via loopholes that are exploited by employers across the board, including the large mainstream firms.
In addition, there is the extremely important point of America's internal brain drain. The Chris O'Briens of the world would argue, "Hey, a country can never have too many smart people in science and engineering," but that simplistic mantra ignores the fact that having too many does force many talented people OUT of the field.
The best example of that is Douglas Prasher, a former scientist about whom one of last year's Nobel winners in Chemistry said, "They could've easily given the prize to Douglas and the other two and left me out." After that comment, the press discovered that Prasher was employed as a shuttle bus driver for a Toyota dealer in Alabama. How did this travesty come to pass? Simple. Today a would be scientist must undergo a series of post doc jobs at low pay for years and years, so that he/she won't even have a shot at a permanent job until age 35 or later. Most don't make it, in spite of great talent.
As was pointed out on NPR at the time by Shirley M. Malcom, head of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, these low wages, 15-year training periods, poor career prospects and so on are direct evidence that we have an OVERsupply of scientists, not a shortage as claimed by the lobbyists. That oversupply comes from the large influx of foreign scientists.
Though Prasher's case is more dramatic, and though I suspect he made a strategic error or two along the way, this certainly illustrates the point: The influx of foreign scientists is causing an internal brain drain in the U.S. Many, like Prasher, are ultimately lost to their fields, and a lot more decide to avoid careers in research science in the first place, as they see the prospects for such careers are so low.
AND WORSE, our own government planned for this to happen. When O'Brien says, "According to statistics from the National Science Foundation released in February, foreign-born science and engineering students in 2003 earned one-third of all Ph.D.s awarded in the U.S.," what he's not telling you (because he doesn't know) is that the NSF actually pushed Congress to establish the H-1B program for the express purpose of holding down PhD salaries. The NSF wrote in an internal memo,A growing influx of foreign PhDs into U.S. labor markets will hold down the level of PhD salaries...[The Americans] will select alternative career paths...[as] the effective premium for acquiring a PhD may actually be negative.
(Eric Weinstein, How and Why Government, Universities, and Industry Create Domestic Labor Shortages of Scientists and High-Tech Workers, NBER, 1998)
The NSF's projection came true, of course, as their current data cited by O'Brien show. Little does O'Brien realize how hypocritical that current NSF report is. (As longtime readers of this e-newsletter also know, in pointing this out I like to cite the old joke about the boy who kills his parents but asks for mercy from the court because he's an orphan. :-) )
Equal hypocrisy is shown, I'm afraid, by an article (linked here) in the current edition of the Computing Research News, a publication of the Computing Research Association, a consortium of most university computer science departments in the U.S. The CRA in general, and coauthor Lazowska in particular, have over the years been very strident supporters of the H-1B visa. Now suddenly they find that there are no jobs for "the best and the brightest" new PhDs graduating from U.S. computer science departments, and CRA has established a program aimed at avoiding losing the most talented computer scientists from the profession. And get this: The nature of this new program is essentially a new kind of post doc. Maybe this program has some merit, but it underscores Dr. Malcolm's point that it's a symptom of oversupply, and as a promoter of H-1B, CRA has contributed much to the creation of that oversupply.
Getting back to the Merc column, it's ironic that the same issue that carried O'Brien's column also included an article titled "Bargain-Priced Homes Expected to Drive Silicon Valley Market Next Year," illustrating the oversupply of engineers there, and another titled, "China's Internet Search King [Robin Li] Cut His Teeth in Silicon Valley." Good for Li—I use Baidu myself—but it certainly undermines O'Brien's point that the U.S. is better off with the immigrants coming here rather than working in other countries.
One more point: O'Brien refers to the "sad, sickly state of California," and offers immigration as a solution. But the blunt truth is that that "sad, sickly state" is due precisely to a combination of immigration, i.e. the import of workers, and its flip side, the export of jobs via offshoring. No one is more sympathetic to the poor (or for that matter to immigrants) than I am, but it's abundantly clear that if the state imports the poor while exporting the good jobs, it's a recipe for fiscal disaster. That, of course, is exactly what we have.
By the way, some readers must be baffled that I haven't posted a review here of the October1 BusinessWeek article, "America's High-Tech Sweatshops". If they are longtime readers, they should know my answer: The article, in focusing on violations of the law, totally misses the point, which is that most abuse of the H-1B program is fully legal, due to loopholes. And again, the abuse occurs with the large mainstream companies too, not just with the Indian bodyshops profiled in the article.