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America needs a ‘Million Talents Program’ now

As Americans wake up to the stark fact that China is overtaking the U.S. in the race to develop frontier technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence (AI), what is the single most significant step the U.S. can take to sustain the technological predominance it has enjoyed since World War II? In one line, it is to recruit the world’s million most talented individuals to work, live and thrive here in the United States. As Congress finalizes the budget reconciliation bill this week, it has an opportunity to make a major down payment toward this goal. The bill should include a provision to expedite access to green cards for foreign students currently in the U.S. earning advanced degrees in STEM, allowing them to stay here and help build the next wave of leading technology companies. 

In the great rivalry between the U.S. and China, China has asymmetric advantages the U.S. cannot hope to match — for example, a population four times its size. China produces four times more bachelor’s students in STEM than the U.S. and is on track to graduate twice as many STEM PhDs annually by 2025. By contrast, the number of domestic-born students participating in AI doctoral programs in the U.S. has not increased since 1990.

One thing China struggles to do, however, is attract tech superstars from other countries. The total number of naturalized Chinese citizens remains under 2,000. Obstacles include a language spoken by few people outside China; an insular culture unwelcoming to foreigners; and a deeply ingrained sense of the ethnic superiority of the Han majority. 

U.S. lawmakers have expressed outrage over China’s Thousand Talents Plan, which provides funding to researchers working abroad and promotes retention of Chinese scientists in an effort to get ahead in cutting-edge technologies. More valuable than blaming China, however, is to ask what we can do. Strategically, we can recognize that the U.S. can recruit from all 7.9 billion people on Earth, while China is limited to its 1.4 billion. Operationally, the U.S. can create an initiative to recruit 1 million technology superstars from around the world — including China — over the next four years. It’s time to poach with purpose. 

The basic idea begins with recognition of the “secret sauce” behind American technological prowess in the past. How did the U.S. become the world’s technological leader? A big part of the answer goes back to World War II, when Washington welcomed many talented European scientists who fled Nazi Germany. Had it not been for Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, the U.S. would not have been the first to acquire nuclear weapons. If Germany rather than the U.S. had acquired the atom bomb first, the outcome of World War II and the shape of our world today would have been decidedly different. 

Fortunately for America, this inflow of talent has continued. Today, despite China’s rapid advances, the U.S. remains the global leader in most advanced information technologies. The single biggest driver of this success has been superstars born in other nations who came to the U.S. From the co-founders of American tech giants. including Google and Intel, to the founders and chief executives of the firms that brought us vaccines against COVID-19, Pfizer and Moderna, immigrants have fueled U.S. leadership in technology. Of all the billion-dollar startups in the U.S. in the past 20 years, how many have been founded or cofounded by individuals born abroad or their children? More than half. It is impossible to imagine American prosperity without them.

To sustain its lead in the technology race and capitalize on its most significant advantage over China, the U.S. needs a Million Talents Program. Although the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that a pathway to citizenship cannot be included in the reconciliation bill, that does not preclude bold initiatives on legal immigration. With the right champions in the federal government and the private sector, the U.S. can attract the next generation of Albert Einsteins and Sergey Brins — in the same way major college football programs compete for the next generation of Tom Bradys. The process for getting a green card for these extraordinary talents should be hassle-free. Moreover, we must ensure that they are welcome, not stigmatized, in a nation that understands that we are stronger together in our uniquely pluralistic society. 

For the skeptical, it is worth noting that leading American companies are already doing this successfully. In the technology likely to have the largest consequences in the next generation — AI — Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other U.S. companies and universities have recruited more than half the world’s geniuses. But they have done this despite a labyrinthine bureaucratic process that will, on Sept. 30, allow 80,000 green card applications to expire, unless the U.S. government acts now.

What has made the U.S. the great nation it is today is not only those fortunate enough to be born here. Individuals from every nation on the globe have left their native countries to join Team USA. A Million Talents Program could sustain this source of strength for what will, in the decade ahead, be the most intense technology rivalry the world has ever seen. 

Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter @GrahamTAllison.

Tags American immigration Artificial intelligence China Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

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