Why Immigrants Are Vital to Science in the U.S.

January 30, 2017 | 3:15 pm
Josh Goldman
Former Contributor

Immigrants are central to advancing science in the United States. An estimated 4.6 million college-educated, foreign-born scientists and engineers comprised over a quarter (27 percent) of the entire science and engineering workforce in the U.S. in 2013.

These millions of scientists and engineers are helping create a healthier, safer society – especially in the area of cancer research. According to a 2013 survey, 42 percent of the researchers at the top seven cancer research centers were found to be foreign-born and the influence of foreign-born researchers at some of the leading U.S. cancer institutions was found to be even higher. At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, for example, 62 percent of the cancer researchers were foreign-born and at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, 56 percent of the researchers were considered immigrants.

Immigrant scientists and engineers tend to be exceptional

Aside from cancer research, the scientists and engineers making the largest impacts in their fields frequently come from immigrants. A study published in Science found that the individuals making exceptional contributions to science and engineering in the U.S. are “disproportionately drawn from the foreign-born.” Moreover, all six of the 2016 Nobel Prize winners affiliated with American universities were foreign-born. Speaking in reference to Brexit, an editor for the London-based Times Higher Education thought the 2016 Nobel Prize class should “serve as a serious warning to those politicians, most notably in the U.K., but also of course in the U.S. and elsewhere, who would seek to place major restrictions on the free movement of international talent.”

And Nobel Laureates

Analysis by George Mason University found that 42 percent of all Nobel Prizes awarded between 1901 and 2015 went to individuals working in the U.S., and that 31 percent of all U.S. Nobel laureates were born outside the U.S. — a figure that’s more than double the highest proportion of immigrants in the general population during those years. Absent immigrant scientists and engineers, the U.S. would have missed out on Nobel Prizes for: (1) figuring out the ribosome (Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, born in India), (2) discovering femtochemistry (Ahmed Zewail, born in Egypt), (3) linking chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFCs) to the depletion of the Earth ozone layer (Mario J. Molina, born in Mexico), and many others.

Immigrant scientists and engineers come for the education and stay for the career

Data suggests that over half of the foreign-born recipients of doctorate degrees in the U.S. remain in the U.S. workforce to pursue their careers, becoming part of the multicultural milieu that has made, and will continue to make, America great.  Let’s not forget the contributions that immigrants have made in advancing science, or the potential contributions to come.

As my colleague Michael noted, many scientists are taking the fight out of the lab and onto the streets. They are organizing marches, preparing to run for office, and joining watchdog teams to monitor and respond to activity. If you’re a scientist and you haven’t signed our letter outlining expectations for the Trump administration, including the promotion of diversity, do so here.