Immigrants and Laureates

By Carl Schramm and Robert Litan
Friday, October 12, 2007; 5:05 PM

Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize is getting almost all the attention, but America's two other new Nobel laureates also have interesting stories. Geneticists Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies won the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work in gene targeting. And while their honor highlights the quality of American research, it also shows how our scientific community is enriched by highly skilled immigrants.

Capecchi, who endured a heart-wrenching early childhood in wartime Italy, immigrated with his mother to the United States after World War II, who survived the Dachau concentration camp. Today, he leads research teams at the University of Utah. Smithies, a native of Britain, came to the United States in the 1950s to work at the University of Wisconsin and has spent the last 19 years at the University of North Carolina. Both are now U.S. citizens.

Foreign-born researchers are common in the U.S. academic and scientific communities. In fact, more than a third of American Nobel laureates in the sciences over the last 15 years were born outside the U.S. These scientists are conducting research with extraordinary promise for improving lives, as well as great potential to produce commercialized therapies and technologies that drive U.S. innovation and economic growth.

The U.S. should welcome these highly skilled researchers and innovators. Unfortunately, recent trends in immigration policy are making it more difficult for foreign-born scientists and engineers to put their skills to work in this country -- and that could have profoundly negative implications for the U.S. economy.

Recent studies by Duke, Harvard and New York universities find that far more skilled scientists and workers are waiting for U.S. visas than can be admitted under current law. More than one million skilled workers await permanent resident status. Yet only about 120,000 permanent resident visas are available each year for skilled workers and their family members in the three main employment visa categories.

To be sure, visa difficulties are nothing new for would-be immigrants trying to work in America. Early in his career, Smithies himself spent seven years working in Toronto because visa snags prevented him from getting back to his job in Wisconsin.

But the difficulties are getting worse. The U.S. has responded to an increased demand for entry -- driven by the fact that it is a global leader in science, technology and innovation -- by capping the number of visas available to immigrants from any one country. As a result, the wait time for visa processing for countries with the largest populations, such as India and China, is close to six years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that increasing numbers of skilled workers from India and China have begun to return home, where the economies are booming.

Furthermore, tightened immigration screening in the U.S. following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has lengthened processing delays. Of course, national security must always be our top priority. But policymakers must come to grips with the potential damage to the U.S. economy and scientific community if many of the world's brightest people decide it is too difficult to work in the United States and take their skills elsewhere.

The pressure is on for U.S. leaders to develop an efficient way to safely welcome the world's top innovators -- including potential Nobel laureates. Scientists like Capecchi and Smithies are a resource we can't afford to be without.

Fortunately, there is evidence that federal officials can change course when convinced they're wrong. The National Institutes of Health rejected Capecchi's initial application for funding to support work that ultimately led to his Nobel Prize because NIH deemed the proposal "not worthy of pursuit." NIH approved his grant four years later.

Carl Schramm is president and chief executive and Robert Litan is vice president for research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company