Why Has America Been Such a Magnet for Immigrant Scientists?

Science has been one of the most important contributors to American national strength over the past century, particularly since the Second World War. During that extraordinary crisis, national leaders recognized the untapped power of discoveries in a broad range of disciplines, from chemistry and physics to biology and engineering. In 1944, President Roosevelt commissioned a report from the director of the White House Office of Scientific Research and Development. 

That remarkable document, entitled “Science, The Endless Frontier,” by Vannevar Bush, saw clearly that the country’s intellectual capital could contribute powerfully to the success of the war effort and beyond, providing the rationale for robust postwar federal support for basic scientific research. This vision is universally acknowledged as a key foundation of modern American economic strength and competitiveness. 

Today, United States agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are the envy of similar agencies throughout the world. The last decade and a half has witnessed challenges to the nation’s leadership position in the sciences and the ability of these agencies to plan effectively. A downward spiral in funding and congressional failure to agree upon annual budgets in a timely manner led to appropriation of funds far too late in the budget year for sensible planning. 

Fortunately, this year, for the first time in 22 years, Congress is almost ready to pass a bill funding the NIH before the fiscal year begins, and with a substantial increase. Let’s hope that this renewed wisdom continues, for it allows for long term, rational planning. But now a new threat has emerged that is potentially more consequential. I am particularly concerned about changes in immigration policies and the impact on our ability to attract the best and brightest young people in the world to America’s scientific enterprise, irrespective of nationality.

A key source of American greatness today is its long tradition of inclusiveness. As in so many other aspects of national life, immigrants have contributed mightily to the leading position of American science. One indicator is the percentage of American Nobel Prizes in the sciences won by individuals who lived and worked in the U.S. at the time of their award but were born in other lands. From the inception of the prizes in 1901 until 2017, 95 of America’s 289 science laureates (chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine) have been immigrants—one in three. 

As a research and education institution that has shaped modern genetics since 1890, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is proud of our association with three of these: Max Delbrück and Salvador Luria, refugees from European fascism, and Richard Roberts, who hailed from England. Historically immigrants have made significant scientific contributions to America, and the trend continues to the present day. “Immigrants have been awarded 39 percent, or 33 of 85, of the Nobel Prizes won by Americans in Chemistry, Medicine and Physics since 2000,” noted a recent report from the National Foundation for American Policy.

Why has America been such a magnet for scientists? I am a scientist-immigrant to this country, but when I left Australia in the late 1970s, I frankly did not think of myself this way. Immigrants, I imagined, were people fleeing economic, geographic or political adversity and seeking a better life in America. But in my case—as with so many thousands of others—it wasn’t a matter of running away from something.

Rather, it was a matter of what I was running toward. I came to the U.S. because of science. The opportunities in America to do basic research at the very highest possible level, and to be among others with similar interests, ambitions and capabilities was the attraction. Most of the scientist-immigrants to this country have come for the same reasons—because of the open American culture that rewards excellence and does not impose restrictions based on prior connections, social status, ethnicity or national origin. 

When I arrived as a postdoctoral fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1979, the scientific staff numbered little more than 100, and those not born here were more likely to have come from Great Britain than any other nation. Today, CSHL’s 600 scientists are far more diverse, reflecting infusions of talent from all over the world, including from Asian nations. This is a natural progression as countries strive to catch up to the U.S. to propel their economies, feed their peoples and enhance the lives of their citizens. While the U.S. should appropriately be cognizant of threats of scientific and economic espionage, scientific cooperation will more likely generate trust and understanding and benefits for all. 

About a dozen years ago, CSHL started a science conference program in Suzhou, China that parallels the meetings program that has existed at the Long Island, New York campus since 1933. These international meetings have been very successful, attracting thousands of scientists annually from many countries to exchange ideas in the biological, agricultural and medical sciences. In 2015, we started a DNA Learning Center for laboratory-based science education for middle and high schools in Suzhou, as part of the international reach of DNA Learning Centers that CSHL started locally on Long Island 30 years ago. Indeed, DNA Learning Centers are now in many countries and in a number of U.S. states. CSHL’s goal in these combined efforts expose students, teachers and scientists to the culture of the scientific enterprise that has been so successful in the U.S.

As globalization, ease of international transport, information technology and rising economic activity provide opportunities for other nations to build their expertise in science and technology, America must continually reexamine its own role in the world. It would be a grave error to close ourselves off from the rest of the world or to raise barriers to cooperation. The basis of our great strength is our culture of openness and entrepreneurial spirit, a culture that defines the American enterprise, including its science. Preserving this culture is critical, and part of this requires that we continue to welcome the best minds in the world to work and study here—for our benefit and for the world’s.



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