Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Science Policy and the H-1 Visa Dilemma

Like many senior academics, I have often helped young colleagues from other countries who intend to pursue their careers in the USA to obtain H-1B visas.  In most cases the goal was to allow these young scientists to be able to apply for federal grants and start building an academic career. In general I think this process has been quite positive for American science. An interesting recent sidelight is, that with the growth of research support in countries such as China and India, an increasing proportion of foreign scholars wants to return home rather than develop a career here.

However, the relatively benign process of seeking permanent residency for foreign scientists trained at US universities stands in stark contrast to the current attempts of big technology companies to import inexpensive foreign engineers and technologists on a massive scale. The immigration legislation currently pending in Congress (1) will make it much easier for that to happen.  The companies claim that they cannot fill available high tech jobs with people in the US. This is really risible! With today’s historically high unemployment including many tens of thousands of technically trained people desperately seeking work, it strains credulity to think that we need to import foreign technologists. Obviously these companies simply want to fill their positions with people who will work for lower salaries than Americans, and who will accept a form of indentured servitude that ties the worker to the company via the visa. In particular this thrust is explicitly designed to get rid of older US workers and replace them with young, poorly paid foreign workers (2).  This is a perfect example of corporate shortsightedness. Each company expects to reduce its costs, yet counts on a thriving market in the US to sustain its products. As Henry Ford found long ago, you need to pay workers enough to buy your products. Apparently corporate America has forgotten this fundamental lesson.

Many responsible organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have opposed the new legislation (3). Additionally there are all sorts of loopholes in the current program that allow more visas than the stated limits (4). But perhaps the most telling argument against increasing the visa pool is a simple economic one. If there really were such a need for tech workers then compensation for those workers should have increased, but this has not happened (5). Indeed, as we have stated many times in this blog, the US is probably already producing more scientists and engineers than the economy can absorb.  The notion promoted by the tech companies that only by foreign recruitment will we have access to the 'best and brightest' technologists has been thoroughly de-bunked in a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute (6).

This would be a good time for those of us in the R & D game to make our voices heard about the negative consequences of the proposed immigration changes.

(5) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/opinion/americas-genius-glut.html?_r=2&

(6) http://www.epi.org/publication/bp356-foreign-students-best-brightest-immigration-policy/

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