The Global Competition for Scientific Minds Is Heating Up

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs a cabinet meeting at the National Glass Centre at the University of Sunderland in Sunderland, England, January 31, 2020. (Paul Ellis/Pool via Reuters)

Will the U.S. cede its lead or start competing in earnest?

U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson recently announced that his government will be overhauling the country’s high-skill visa system to create a new pathway, called the Global Talent visa, for foreign-born scientists and technical practitioners to come and work in the United Kingdom. This is an exciting move for the prospects of U.K. innovation, but also part of a growing trend in the global competition for attracting the best and brightest minds from around the world. The United States already has some compelling advantages in this race, but our current immigration policies are effectively making us run with our feet tied together. We should take a cue from Boris and cut the red tape that binds us.

We can start with the simple premise that while talent is distributed roughly equally across the globe, opportunity is not. And although the United States has some homegrown talent helping lead innovations on the technical frontier in fields like self-driving cars, genetic editing, quantum computing, clean energy, and many other areas, the simple fact is that our progress would be much slower without immigrant founders and scientists. More than half of our billion-dollar startups were founded by immigrants, and 80 percent featured immigrants in a core product design or management role. Though immigrants make up only 18 percent of our workforce, they produce 28 percent of our high-quality patents, comprise 31 percent of our Ph.D. population, and have won 39 percent of our Nobel Prizes in science. This is not because immigrants are inherently smarter than the average native-born worker, but because of strong selection effects wherein the smartest or most entrepreneurial people from every country are the individuals most likely to emigrate in search of new opportunities.

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It’s precisely this population of high-skill immigrant founders and scientists that the Global Talent visa is meant to attract to the United Kingdom. By creating a faster, uncapped immigration queue for talented scientists from around the world, the United Kingdom is broadcasting a very explicit signal to this group — that the country wants to become a hub for global talent and will actively break down barriers for their integration. And domestically, the primary rejoinder has been to question whether this reform goes far enough!

The United Kingdom is not the only country competing for this pool of innovators. Canada has been putting up bulletin boards in Silicon Valley as far back as 2013 advertising its comparatively lax immigration system, especially for high-skill workers and scientists. As a result, Toronto is rapidly developing into a tech hub, with smart, foreign-born students deterred by U.S. immigration restrictions taking their skills up north instead. Israel, in a recent move acknowledging the huge supply shortfall of scientists working in artificial intelligence, is going so far as to pay companies over half-a-million dollars a year to help train new experts. China has arguably been the most active in this sphere, as it aggressively attempts to recruit talented students and scientists currently attending or working at U.S. universities to return to China through the country’s Thousand Talents Plan.

The fact is, progress on the cutting edge of emerging technologies is always limited by the number of talented individuals a country has working on hard problems in a conducive research environment. And as the geopolitical and strategic implications of leading in emerging technology development only continue to increase, it makes sense that countries will seek an advantage in this perpetual race by attracting the best and brightest from around the world.

What doesn’t make sense is the tangled web of U.S. immigration policies that creates unnecessary barriers for the world’s most talented minds trying to work here. The United States currently has much longer wait times, higher visa processing fees, more paperwork and bureaucracy, and a smaller number of high-skill visas as a percentage of its population than do other industrialized countries — including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia — with whom we are competing.

Despite these deterrents, the United States already has some significant advantages in the global competition for talent. Most prominently, we already have a long, storied tradition as the prime destination for hungry entrepreneurs and top scientific minds. William Kerr’s book The Gift of Global Talent makes this point by observing that from 2000 to 2010, more immigrant inventors migrated to the United States than to all other countries combined.

Through an amalgamation of our regional innovation clusters like Silicon Valley, our strong research and university system, our friendly business environment, and a healthy dose of inertia, we’ve maintained our status as the de facto promised land for science and innovation over the past few decades — in spite of our immigration failings. But now, the combination of even stricter immigration barriers and an increasing number of opportunities to launch a tech startup or contribute to cutting-edge scientific research available overseas means we can no longer take our status for granted.

To really start playing to our natural advantage, we should start with two reforms. First, we should follow Boris’s lead and reform our pathways for high-skill technical and scientific talent. If Congress is willing to act, we could completely revitalize a program like the H-1B visa, which is a poor structural fit for the needs and timelines of today’s knowledge economy but nonetheless remains our primary pathway for high-skill workers.

Alternatively, a willing executive branch could better utilize programs like the O-1 visa, which is intended for immigrants of extraordinary ability. Today, it is being used primarily by actors, fashion models, and athletes. The O-1 visa is particularly interesting as it most closely mirrors the U.K. Global Talent visa — it is both uncapped and ostensibly aimed at attracting the highest echelons of global talent. But the discretionary and ambiguous standards surrounding what ‘extraordinary’ entails and how it can be demonstrated has led to a messy application process that can frequently require a 400-page legal petition and only works for a small number of technical workers each year.

Second, we need some form of an entrepreneurship or startup visa, as current pathways like H-1B are structurally designed for employees, not startup founders. Many other industrialized countries — including New Zealand, Singapore, Ireland, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada — have launched startup visas to allow those who want to start their own companies to begin building in their country, so long as they meet certain investment or business criteria.

The combination of these two pathways — one for high-skill technical and scientific talent and a second for entrepreneurs or startup founders — would do a great deal to boost the prospects of domestic innovation and ensure that the United States maintains its leadership in emerging technology development.

In the past, we’ve largely been able to win the race for global talent without breaking a sweat. But now, as the United Kingdom and many other countries are beginning to realize the value of this incredible resource, we might actually have to start trying.

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