US Should Lower Barriers to Foreign Tech Talent, Experts Say

Efforts to prevent espionage are harming the country more than they’re helping—and the same is true of China, they say.

The United States must work harder to attract the world’s best science and technology experts, not succumb to fears of espionage or intellectual-property theft, policy experts said. 

“When you look at the costs and benefits...the risk of ‘there's Chinese scholars in somebody's laboratory’ are always outweighed by the benefits. And it's like a distraction, in some ways, to continue to focus our attention in that way,” said Amy Nice, an immigration law and policy expert who previously led the White House’s international science and technology talent efforts.

Foreign-born STEM workers added an estimated $367 billion to $409 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product in 2019, Nice said, citing a report by the Institute for Defense Analyses.

But science and engineering enrollment for international students has dropped in recent years, particularly in graduate programs, the National Science Foundation found

“STEM talent is important and critical and international STEM talent is important and critical, because industry needs it and industry needs it for their activities and also for this increasing collaboration between industry and academia that is key to applying the foundational and basic research to whatever the next event is,” Nice said Tuesday at a Brookings Institution event

“In our country, we're a nation of immigrants and all that, but we do not provide sufficient certainty and predictability for the very people that we want to attract and retain.”

There are various proposals to make it easier for foreigners to come work in the United States, from creating a specialized visa for specific sector talent to other immigration policy workarounds. But Nice said more use could be made of current pathways, like those highlighted on new pages for STEM workers on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

“We're all kind of used to our immigration system being dysfunctional. And it's hard to imagine that we actually have tools that we can use, but there are some and we should use them…more aggressively and more confidently,” she said. 

Nice’s comments on the international STEM talent security and immigration debate echo ones previously made by the Biden administration.

Attracting more tech experts is seen as key to rejuvenating domestic semiconductor production in particular. 

“Forty percent of [the] semiconductor workforce is foreign-born today,” Tarun Chhabra, senior director for technology and national security on the National Security Council, said last September. “So, we all have to work together and understand that…on the workforce side, it's a supply-chain issue, it's a national-security issue…to ensure that we have the talent we need to execute on this broader strategy.”

Matthew Turpin, senior advisor to Palantir Technologies and a Hoover Institution visiting fellow, said on Tuesday that the competition for talent means emphasizing “attractiveness and promotion” over “restrictions.”

“It is extremely hard for us to predict what we're going to need 5, 10, 15 years down the road, right, which is when folks are going to enter into the sort of training to be able to get these advanced degrees,” Turpin said. “We need as broad a system as possible with as many options as possible. And then we'll find that we've got the talent that's available to us.”

For any country, openness and collaboration will be vital because they’re the cruxes of good science, said Yasheng Huang, an international management professor and faculty director of action learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Restrictive policies, such as China’s recent crackdown on tech giants, could have long-term effects on the STEM workforce. 

“If you look at where China has got it, right, it has gotten it right where the collaborations are the most advanced,” Huang said, noting that Chinese telecom giant Huawei helped advance 5G technology and had numerous American and British partners in 2018.

Huang warned against governments’ efforts to restrict collaboration in the name of national security. He cited the China initiative, which was a three-year effort by the U.S. Justice Department to root out potential spies. But he said similar Chinese efforts have “gone way beyond” that and “done a lot of damage” to China’s own research system. 

Huang worries that science as a whole could suffer if those policies persist and that talent could be wasted. 

“If we don't get our act together, science as a whole also suffers by the fact that China has gotten so many things wrong,” he said. “When scientists go back to China, they enter into an area of dark science. So the disclosure is less; therefore, science as a whole benefits less.”