Why Trump’s Immigration Policies Could Set Back U.S. Tech Innovation And Scientific Discovery
Leaders in science and tech innovation are concerned that President Donald Trump’s immigration policies could initiate a future brain drain at U.S. tech firms and research centers, stifling innovation and growth.
Immigrants come to America seeking economic and professional opportunities, education or asylum. The world has long viewed America as an open society that welcomes people from diverse backgrounds, but the campaign rhetoric, election, and subsequent travel ban and changes in immigration policy have caused a shift in world opinion.
The loss of the world’s best and brightest talent could have dire consequences for U.S. tech superiority in the global marketplace and advancements in life science and biotech. Immigrants have founded more than half of all U.S startup companies valued at $1B and are key members of management or product development in 70% of these companies, according to a recent report by Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan public policy research organization.
“Immigrants play a key role in creating new, fast-growing companies, as evidenced by the prevalence of foreign-born founders and key personnel in the nation’s leading privately held companies,” Anderson wrote, noting each company created on average 760 jobs. The collective value of the 44 immigrant-founded unicorn companies is $168B, which he said is nearly half the value of the stock markets of Russia or Mexico.
Anderson, whose organization focuses on trade, immigration and related issues, served as executive associate commissioner for policy and planning and counselor to the commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service and on the Senate immigration subcommittee. He said the U.S. immigration system is broken. More than 40% of researchers at top U.S. cancer centers, including Johns Hopkins, Memorial Sloan-Kettering and the MD Anderson Cancer Center, are foreign born, he said. They endure the same long wait for green cards as other highly skilled immigrants, Anderson said.
He also said 40% of Nobel Prizes won by American scientists in chemistry, medicine and physics since 2000 were awarded to immigrants. In 2016, all six American winners of the Nobel Prize in economics and scientific fields were immigrants.
CONNECT San Diego, a nonprofit innovation company accelerator founded by the University of California, San Diego, operates Springboard, an incubator program that provides local entrepreneurs with mentors to help them shape raw ideas into companies. CONNECT also assists local companies and research institutes in locating science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, talent worldwide.
CONNECT president and CEO Gregory McKee also said the immigration system is broken, and as a result the innovation economy is losing U.S.-educated, foreign-born talent. The majority of Ph.D.s graduating from the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering are foreign born, he said, mostly from China and India. “People struggle to come here and push to get an education to secure a high-value, high-earning job,” he said. “Some become phenomenal entrepreneurs and stay, but many go back [home] because there is no visa that allows them to stay.”
As an example of international talent, McKee mentioned Echo Laboratories president and CEO Eugene Cho, an entrepreneur of Korean descent, who invented a novel, hybrid microscope, Revolve, which combines the functions of two types of microscopes used by medical researchers and displays specimens on an iPad. A Springboard graduate, Cho won the 2016 Quick Pitch competition, hosted by San Diego’s Tech Coast Angels, for a two-minute presentation of his product and took home the $15K prize. Revolve saves bench space and money, as it is priced about the same as one microscope.
Both Anderson and John D. Skrentny, a University of California, San Diego professor and director of the UCSD Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, are worried about how the travel ban and immigration policies will impact U.S. research and development and the continued flow of students to American universities.
“Immigrants are incredibly important to life sciences and biotech because scientists work in aggregate, a structure important to their achievements,” Skrentny said. He said foreign talent is important to U.S. tech innovation, pointing out even more foreign-born professionals work in tech and tech-related industries, which account for many more jobs than the biomedical sciences. While politics has created public bias against hiring foreign nationals, he said, “People hire them because they want access to the best talent. One super-brilliant person is worth 10 others. The issue with Trump is he is creating uncertainty and an unwelcoming brand for America."
He said Trump’s policies could cause companies to lose a lot of talent. Rounding up undocumented residents sends an unwelcome message to foreign graduate students, who may choose to go to the UK, Canada, Germany or The Netherlands instead, he said. U.S. graduate programs in tech and the sciences are dependent on international students, the majority of whom are from China and India, but a significant number are from Iran, according to Skrentny.
Anderson has authored a large body of research on the contributions of foreign-born STEM professionals and immigrants to U.S. achievements in science and tech innovation. “The travel ban may not affect people with H-1B or F1 visas, but it is creating uncertainty among students," he said. "The perception of the new immigration policies could lead to fewer students studying in the U.S. We’re going to have to look at the bigger picture over the next few years.
”In the short-term, the Kansas shooting incident could have an impact,” he said. “It got a lot of attention in India.” Anderson said airlines are already reporting a downturn in overall foreign travel to the United States. He said Trump’s travel policies do not make sense in the first place, since every U.S. terrorist attack has been carried out by people already living here.
What worries Elizabeth Schwarzbach, chief of staff at Sanford Burham Preys Medical Discovery Institute is a bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. Michael Dubin (D-IL) that would eliminate the nonprofit exemption from the H-1B quota. There could also be additional requirements, like posting research jobs for 30 days on the national online job website to recruit qualified Americans, before hiring a foreign national.
The institute operates an internal innovation program and many of the participants are foreign-born faculty members or are students and postdoctoral scientists on F1-optional (student visa with work privileges) or H-1B visas, respectively. Program participants provide the institute with a pool of trained scientists.
The Grassley-Dubin bill is a response to concerns that immigrants and foreign nationals are displacing American workers, but Schwarzbach said immigrants are creating jobs. “Some of the largest companies the San Diego area were started by immigrants,” she said, noting one of Qualcomm’s founders was a Jewish refugee from Italian racial laws.
The Sanford Burham Preys Medical Discovery Institute operates an international office that provides students and postdoctoral scientists assistance with their visa documents and advises them about travel concerns. When the Trump administration implemented the first travel ban, the international office held a Q&A session to inform students about how this could affect them. The office also helps program graduates obtain a 12-month visa extension, which allows them to work for an employer on a trial basis before the employer commits to sponsoring them for a H-1B visa — an expensive process.
A number of Silicon Valley tech professionals were caught up in Trump’s first travel ban, so tech titans joined nearly 100 firms, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel, Twitter and Microsoft, in the legal battle against it.
While Trump’s revised travel ban removed Iraq — an ally and U.S. partner in the war against terrorism — from the list of banned countries. Iran, which has produced a significant number of tech professionals, entrepreneurs and scientists, is still on the list. Among Iranian tech notables are: Yahoo CEO Farzad Nazem, eBay founder Pierre Omidya, YouTube CEO Salar Kamagar, Google’s Omid Kordestani, Dropbox co-founder Arash Ferdowsi and Zoosk co-founder Shayan Zadeh.
The revised travel ban, temporarily barring entry of citizens from six Muslim nations to the United States, may not face the same legal challenges as the last travel ban because it exempts legal permanent residents and people previously issued visas. The new order has not assuaged Silicon Valley objections. The Trump administration simultaneously ordered a temporary halt to expedited applications for H-1B visas, something many believe signals a broader overhaul of the visa system, which has been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats as a way for companies to hire cheap foreign labor, displacing Americans.
The fallout from Trump’s immigration policies may cost American jobs, as tech entrepreneurs with Middle Eastern roots respond to the Trump administration’s policies. For instance, Iranian native Amin Shokrollahi, who now lives in Europe, had planned to expand his startup tech business Kandou Bus in the Bay Area and hire 80 to 90 U.S. engineers and designers. Since the travel ban, Shokrollahi has changed his plans and now the expansion will take place in Europe or Asia, which offer a more welcoming environment and fewer travel issues, CNBC reports.
CORRECTION, MARCH 21, 12:20 P.M. PT: A previous version of this story had inaccurate information about Echo Laboratories founder and CEO Eugene Cho. Cho is of Korean descent. The story has been updated.