We must retain foreign Ph.D.s to keep America’s innovation advantage

The law that governs the migration of skilled workers into the United States, the Immigration Act of 1990, has been mired in controversy for most of its 30 years and has seen little improvement since its passage. President Trump’s recent threats to limit temporary visas for skilled foreign workers predictably led to a rehearsal of familiar arguments: Leading tech firms claimed that limiting the temporary H-1B visa will severely hinder their ability to fill labor shortages for STEM talent. Others claimed that foreign workers, especially in entry-level IT positions, displace U.S. workers at lower pay. 

While both arguments contain some truth, they are badly flawed because they paint all high-skilled workers with the same, broad brush. 

Lost in these debates is the importance of work visas for retaining highly skilled STEM Ph.D.s graduating from U.S. research universities. Why are workers with doctorates so important? They work at the forefront of research in areas such as artificial intelligence, alternative energy and biomedical research — including vaccines. Indiscriminately restricting all foreign workers may, rather than protecting American jobs, have the unintended consequence of undercutting the U.S. lead in cutting-edge technologies.

Allowing foreign Ph.D.s to remain in the U.S. after graduation is important because they contribute disproportionately to American innovation and entrepreneurship relative to other degrees. Big Tech companies, which have seen their businesses grow during the economic downturn, are investing heavily in R&D and hiring top tech talent, including STEM Ph.D.s.

While some might be concerned that foreign Ph.D.s take jobs from American Ph.D.s, unemployment for all Ph.D.s — including U.S. citizens — was 1.1 percent in 2019, suggesting that the demand for highly-skilled Ph.D.s is outpacing their supply. This is especially true in fields such as engineering and computer science, where the foreign-born Ph.D.s make up more than half of all doctorates. The reasons for this are complex, but mostly because many Americans choose careers in business or other fields that don’t require a Ph.D. 

Regardless, eliminating such a large share of the STEM Ph.D. workforce, especially when Ph.D. unemployment is already so low, could have dire consequences for U.S. innovation. This takes on even greater importance given that many high-skilled tech jobs — and the tax revenue they provide local economies — are moving to other countries such as Canada, where immigration policies are more welcoming to high-skilled workers with advanced degrees. 

Also in the political crosshairs is the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. OPT allows international students graduating from U.S. universities with STEM degrees to work in this country for up to three years after graduation. Although the program isn’t exclusively targeted at those earning Ph.D.s, it plays a key but neglected role for that group, providing them with a stopgap visa status — as they wait for their employer to sponsor them for a temporary H-1B or for permanent residency — while working on developing new technologies that may solve vital problems and boost the economy.

Unfortunately, and to our country’s detriment, there is little recognition in Washington of the importance of distinguishing STEM Ph.D.s from other workers when enacting visa restrictions. In letters to the White House by both critics and supporters of OPT, neither side showed awareness of the program’s importance for hiring new STEM Ph.D.s.

Rumored plans for the H-1B to go to firms offering the highest salaries would seem to privilege Ph.D. employment, but in reality it may reward certain highly paid occupations (AI engineers, for example) and deep-pocketed firms — to the detriment of startups and lower-paying sectors such as life sciences.

The current U.S. visa system for high-skilled workers is rife with problems and increasingly anachronistic after three decades. The long-term solution is for Congress to overhaul our immigration laws to fit our national interest in 2020 and the years to come. But in the meanwhile, it is essential that Congress and the White House understand the key role that OPT and H-1B play in retaining newly-minted STEM Ph.D.s from U.S. universities — top talent with cutting-edge skills — so they can work for American companies and contribute to the American innovation economy with little threat to American workers.

Michael Roach is the J. Thomas and Nancy W. Clark Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management within the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University. 

John D. Skrentny is a professor with the University of California-San Diego Department of Sociology whose research and teaching interests include law, politics and public policy. Follow him on Twitter @johnskrentny.

Tags American technology biomedical research Donald Trump H-1B visa Immigration Act PhDs
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