In the lab, I’ve never had my experiment fail because I’m an immigrant. It usually just happens because I screwed up. All science cares about is what kind of questions I ask, my creativity, and how hard I work. Disease doesn’t recognize international boundaries, and no lab rat has ever asked to see my passport.
Merely days into his presidency, President Trump signed an executive order to ban immigrants and refugees from entering the United States, an order which was quickly struck down in the courts. The Trump administration has since issued a revised order, Travel Ban 2.0, which has already been blocked nationwide by two federal judges. So, is America great again yet? I’m not quite sure how to empirically answer that question. Though I do know that, before all the immigration bans, and the noise and fury, we were already great in many respects.
According to the latest U.S. News & World Report, seventeen of the top twenty ranked universities in the world are American institutions. We dominate in the number of Nobel prize awardees, with more than double the number of laureates from second place England. We spend the most money on research, have the most Olympic gold medals, and have put more men on the moon than anyone else!
There are, of course, several legal and humanitarian cases to be made against an abrupt abandonment of American values like the travel ban, but there are also economic arguments to be made. One important consequence of these actions, which the government seems to be heedless of, is the impact they have on science in America.
Science has consistently been a driver of economic growth and progress in the 20th and 21st centuries; without it, there would be no technological innovation. America’s fertile atmosphere for entrepreneurship, discovery, and invention paves the way for companies like Google, Apple, IBM, General Electric, and Boston Scientific. Incidentally, all those companies were founded by immigrants and children of immigrants. In fact, taken alone, the combined revenues of Fortune 500 companies founded by immigrants constitute the world’s third-largest economy besides the United States. Many of these businesses create jobs, wealth, and gradually elevate the standard of living of everyone in the nation.
Six Americans were awarded the Nobel prize last year, and not one of them was born in the United States. In 2013, the National Science Foundation revealed that immigrants continue to play an increasing role in our science and engineering workforce, reporting 29 million scientists and engineers currently residing in the United States, 18% of which are immigrants. What’s more, the National Foundation for American Policy reports roughly 70% of full-time graduate enrollments in electrical engineering programs are international students, and 63% in computer science. The report also found that international students usually become active contributors to the U.S. economy as academics and entrepreneurs.
Most immigrants and refugees recognize the privileges they enjoy here and feel an urge to make their own contributions to society in return. This is likely even truer in the case of refugees, because not only is a large part of their success owed to the community but, in many cases, they owe their very life to the country that welcomed them.
These statistics are largely the fortunate product of two bureaucratic gems called the H-1B and O-1 visas, sometimes dubbed the ‘genius visas’. Although, in a hilariously flattering way, the U.S. Immigration Service calls the O-1 a visa for “aliens with extraordinary ability.”
American science and the rich economy it generates depends heavily on visas like these. The free flow of ideas and researchers across borders is at the core of the entire enterprise. Therefore, summarily banning immigration solely based on nationality damages a great number of international scientific collaborations between laboratories. It is antithetical to our values, jeopardizes our stability, and threatens America’s leading position in research worldwide.
To any observer, it is abundantly clear that this country has a spectacularly efficient cycle of harnessing the potential and ambition of its immigrants as well as welcoming fresh ideas and new perspectives.
As a biologist, I know the importance of genetic diversity in evolution by natural selection. It increases the likelihood of favorable genetic variations within the species. Now, we certainly shouldn’t let nature dictate all matters of how we structure our societies – no one wants to live in a Darwinian social system – but there is a lesson to be learned from the biological perspective on diversity here.
Our greatness and strength as a nation hasn’t developed despite the divergence of our cultures and ideologies; instead, it is precisely because of those differences that we continue to lead the world in innovation. Given the current political climate, young immigrants need to know that they, too, belong in America and that America becomes a better nation when we embrace them.