Balanced Brookings Event Weighs Role of Immigrants in Innovation

By David North on February 8, 2011

In contrast to so many conferences on immigration held in Washington, the Brookings Institution yesterday sponsored an even-handed event on the question of highly-educated immigrants and innovation in industry.

The announcement and links to some of the papers can be found here.

While the expected pitch that the foreign-born play a major role in starting up high-tech companies was made by several of the speakers, including George Mason Professor David Hart, there were plenty of comments from the podium, and from the floor, providing differing views on the general subject.

In a paper by Hart published this month by Brookings he and co-author Zoltan J. Acs, also of George Mason University, stated: "Our study shows that the founding teams of about 16 percent of a nationally representative sample of high-tech companies – the kind of company that is most critical for long-term economic growth – include at least one immigrant."

Hart's paper called for clearing the "Employment-Based Green Card Backlog." Given the various numerical ceilings on immigration, including that of scientists and engineers, there are a substantial number of people in the various queues with graduate degrees in these disciplines. Further, most of the PhDs in the physical sciences and particularly engineering in recent years have been awarded to non-citizens. There's a proposed bill, the so-called Staple Bill, that would grant a green card to any alien who had completed a PhD at an American institution.

Another speaker, with an expansive view of immigration, said that corporate innovation comes from ideas, generally, and that with more migration there would be more skilled people, and thus more ideas.

No one questioned Hart's specific empirical finding, but the extent of the linkage between the education of foreign-born PhDs in science and engineering (admittedly largely at U.S. expense) and the founding of high-tech firms by these individuals came under scrutiny as did the policy suggestion that the permanent immigration system should be adjusted to allow the admission of larger numbers of scientists and engineers.

One question raised by a senior U.S. physicist was this: "Aren't a large percentage of the foreign-born innovators former asylees, rather than former foreign students?" (The Einstein precedent was left unstated.)

Maybe that was true right after World War II, but probably is no longer the case, was the reply from the podium.

One audience member, from a Hispanic organization, indicated that she was worried that more green cards for scientists would mean fewer of them for (less well-educated) immigrants in the family categories. The speaker, Darrell West, a Brookings Vice President, responded with a back-handed suggestion that current immigration numbers be expanded, saying: "That would only be a problem if the limits remain stationary."

A male in the audience asked the all-male first panel at the session if anyone had thought about the gender variable; foreign PhD candidates are largely male, and not very many women, American and foreign, receive doctorates in the fields. "Are foreign men crowding American women out of these fields?"

"Give me a year and I will find out if there is an untapped supply of women in these fields" was the reply from the only speaker who responded.

But it was not just some people in the substantial audience who offered non-Establishment views.

One of the moderators, Kevin Finneran, editor of Issues in Science and Technology, perhaps with tongue in check, wondered if the real innovators behind some of the more remarkable start-up firms might be "all those creative people on Wall Street, who figure out how to make a commercial success of these ideas, and all those lawyers who handle the patent filings that protect the entrepreneur's ideas."

Two of the speakers had at least cautionary thoughts about the prospect of more foreign scientists and engineers.

Prof. Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology had some sharp comments on the wage-lowering, labor-force-expanding H-1B and L-1 visa programs; for more on this, see the report he wrote for the Economic Policy Institute.

There was also a sober comment from a Canadian scholar, Prof. Jennifer Hunt of McGill University, that while she was worried about the green card backlogs and Hira's comments on the indentured nature of the foreign worker programs, "Maybe there's nothing fundamental to fix in America's immigration system; maybe things are rocking along reasonably well."

It was a lively, useful session.