Brain Gain: How High-Skilled Immigration Drives Innovation

America’s secret weapon

October 2022

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

Which technologies changed the world the most in the last 100 years?

The terrifying bomb … that ended a world war?

The triumph of science and engineering that took us to the moon?

The internet revolution that reshaped the way we live?

All, it should be noted, American triumphs, but … they didn’t have to be.

What if the Nazis got the bomb first?

What if it was a Soviet flag that was planted on the moon?

What if the most powerful tech companies … were all based in China?

All scenarios that could have happened … if it wasn’t for just one thing.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

If there’s one thing we know about America in the 2020s, it’s that we’re hopelessly polarized, especially when it comes to hot-button cultural issues: abortion, guns, whether a hot dog is a sandwich.

Yes, when people are asked broad questions about big, controversial topics they tend to take black and white positions. But when the questions get a little more specific, the country can look a lot less divided.

Case in point: immigration. Based on the media coverage, you’d think the entire country is divided between those who want open borders and those who want to shut off immigration entirely. But on at least one front, public opinion is pretty lopsided.

When Americans are asked about high-skilled immigration — admitting the most talented foreigners in the most important industries — it isn’t even close. Seventy-eight percent of Americans think we should encourage highly-skilled people to come to the U.S.i And in fact, so do 63 percent of Americans who otherwise want to limit immigration.ii

Now, we know what you’re thinking, and yes … at least some of this is probably related to Keanu Reeves being Canadian.

But a lot of it probably also has to do with lessons from history.

When the Nazis came to power, many of Europe’s top scientists and intellectuals fled to the United States.iii That group included people like Albert Einstein and Edward Teller, without whom the Manhattan Project wouldn’t have been possible. One aide to Winston Churchill later said that the Allies won the war “because our German scientists were better than their German scientists.”iv

The race to the moon? We won in part because of the Saturn V rockets that got our astronauts there — the brainchild of the German scientist Wernher Von Braun.v

Modern tech innovations? It’s a similar story. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google were all founded by first- or second-generation immigrants.vi And for that matter, so are half of all the tech and engineering startups in Silicon Valley.vii

And continuing this flow of talent … may be the key to maintaining America’s competitiveness in vital industries — and protecting our national security.

As we move deeper into the digital era, there is a worldwide race for talent in the most critical industries. Fifty-three percent of the world’s top-tier researchers in artificial intelligence, for example, are immigrants.viii And so are 50 percent of the most technically sophisticated workers in the American defense industry.ix

And by the way, we’re gonna need more help. The defense industry relies on workers with what are called STEM degrees – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And 82 percent of defense companies say it’s hard to find enough qualified STEM workers.x

So, how is America doing on attracting skilled workers from abroad? Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The good news is that we’re still the world’s leading destination for talent.

The U.S. is home to over 11 million high-skilled immigrants, about 1/3 of the world’s total. xi We’ve got 57 percent of the world’s immigrant inventors.xii And we’re by far the preferred destination for the most skilled researchers in artificial intelligence, with nearly 60 percent saying they’d like to make their home in the United States.xiii

The bad news: Our technological lead is looking more precarious by the day.

One of the best measures of the quality of a country’s scientific output is how much of its research winds up in the top one percent of articles cited by other scholars. And on that front: China passed the United States in 2019.xiv Moreover, it’s estimated that by 2025 China will be graduating nearly double as many PhDs in STEM fields as the U.S.xv

Now, one big difference, right? There’s not a lot of foreign talent that wants to move to China.

Because … well, you know.

But that’s not the only threat. We have at least one other foreign competitor that won’t rest until we’re knocked out of the top spot, a nation famous for its ruthlessness and aggression.

We’re talking, of course, about Canada.

A 2021 report found that Canada has actually surpassed the United States as the most attractive country for people looking to move abroad for work.xvi

And yes, some of this is surely about poutine. I mean, gravy and cheese curds on French fries? How can the rest of the world be expected to compete with that kind of innovation?

But a lot of it has to do with the fact that Canada makes things easy for would-be immigrants. A high-skilled immigrant can often get a temporary visa in Canada within two weeks, with no limit to how many people can be chosen.xvii By contrast, because of caps on the number of people who can receive similar status in the U.S., it was estimated that we had to reject over 70 percent of applicants in 2021.xviii

The consequences if we continue this pattern: The harder America makes it for the world’s most talented people to come here, the more likely they are to go somewhere else. And the more likely we are to slip behind…

…which could weaken our economy; reduce our ability to innovate; and even threaten our national security.

Seriously, we don’t know where Keanu’s loyalties lie.

Sources

  1. "Majority of U.S. Public Supports High-Skilled Immigration" (Phillip Connor, Neil G. Ruiz) — Pew Research Center
  2. Ibid.
  3. "Bombs, Brains, and Science: The Role of Human and Physical Capital for the Creation of Scientific Knowledge" (Fabian Waldinger) — The Review of Economics and Statistics 
  4. "The Road to Hell" — The Economist 
  5. Biography of Wernher Von Braun — NASA
  6. "More Than Half of the Top American Tech Companies Were Founded by Immigrants or the Children of Immigrants" (Sara Salinas) — CNBC
  7. "The Gift of Global Talent: Innovation Policy and the Economy" (William R. Kerr) — National Bureau of Economic Research
  8. The Global AI Talent Tracker — MacroPolo
  9. "STEM Immigration Is Critical to American National Security" (Jeremy Neufeld) — Institute for Progress 
  10. Ibid.
  11. "The Gift of Global Talent: Innovation Policy and the Economy" (William R. Kerr) — National Bureau of Economic Research 
  12. Ibid.
  13. Skilled and Mobile: Survey Evidence of AI Researchers’ Immigration Preferences — Proceedings of the 2021 AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society
  14. "A Discussion of Measuring the Top-1% Most-Highly Cited Publications: Quality and Impact of Chinese Papers" (Caroline S. Wagner, Lin Zhang, Loet Leydesdorff) — Scientometrics 
  15. "Winning the Tech Talent Competition" (Remco Zwetsloot) — Center for Strategic & International Studies 
  16. Decoding Global Talent, Onsite and Virtual — Boston Consulting Group
  17. Analysis of U.S. And Canadian International Student Data — National Foundation for American Policy 
  18. "House Immigration Chair Warns U.S. Is Losing Talent To Canada" (Stuart Anderson) — Forbes

Shownotes

Sound | Artlist: O Canada” (Ian Post), “1-2 Punch” (Rex Banner), “Lives” (Angel Salazar), “Party Rock” (Gvidon), “Entrance to the Ancient Mines” (Jakub Pietras), “Tempest Fugit(Francesco Dandrea), “The Day After Tomorrow” (Maya Belsitzman), SFX Library // Premium Beat: Nina’s Diary” (Senbei) // Pond5 SFX Library // Pro Sound Cloud Library 

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Sources

  1. Pew Research Center
    "Majority of U.S. Public Supports High-Skilled Immigration" (Phillip Connor, Neil G. Ruiz)
  2. The Review of Economics and Statistics 
    Bombs, Brains, and Science: The Role of Human and Physical Capital for the Creation of Scientific Knowledge (Fabian Waldinger)  
  3. The Economist 
    "The Road to Hell" 
  4. NASA
    Biography of Wernher Von Braun 
  5. CNBC
    "More Than Half of the Top American Tech Companies Were Founded by Immigrants or the Children of Immigrants" (Sara Salinas)
  6. National Bureau of Economic Research
    "The Gift of Global Talent: Innovation Policy and the Economy" (William R. Kerr) 
  7. MacroPolo
    The Global AI Talent Tracker 
  8. Institute for Progress
    "STEM Immigration Is Critical to American National Security" (Jeremy Neufeld)
  9. Proceedings of the 2021 AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society
    Skilled and Mobile: Survey Evidence of AI Researchers’ Immigration Preferences 
  10. Scientometrics 
    "A Discussion of Measuring the Top-1% Most-Highly Cited Publications: Quality and Impact of Chinese Papers" (Caroline S. Wagner, Lin Zhang, Loet Leydesdorff
  11. Center for Strategic & International Studies
    "Winning the Tech Talent Competition" (Remco Zwetsloot)  
  12. Boston Consulting Group
    Decoding Global Talent, Onsite and Virtual 
  13. National Foundation for American Policy 
    Analysis of U.S. And Canadian International Student Data 
  14. Forbes
    "House Immigration Chair Warns U.S. Is Losing Talent To Canada" (Stuart Anderson)

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