Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in India, shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with American-born Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonoth of Israel. Their work using x-ray crystallography has provided “fundamental information about the workings of the cellular machinery at the atomic level and is already being exploited by pharmaceutical companies working to make new, more effective antibiotics,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Immigrants to America have a long history of achievement in Nobel Prizes and other forms of international recognition in the sciences. “It is fairly clear that Americans with recent foreign roots are overrepresented in any classification of Americans who have brought honor and recognition to the United States,” concluded the National Research Council, a part of the national Academy of Sciences, in its 1997 report The New Americans. As of 1997, the National Research Council found immigrants made up between one-quarter to one-third of the U.S. Nobel Prize winners: 26 percent in chemistry, 32 percent in physics, 31 percent in physiology medicine, 31 percent in economics and 27 percent in literature.
Some who oppose immigration more generally – or high skill immigration specifically argue they have no problem with America admitting Nobel Prize winners, just not others of lesser distinction. The problem is even America’s recent Nobel Prize winners were often just promising students when they first began the process of immigrating to the United States. For example, Elizabeth Blackburn first came to America in 1975, more than three decades before earning the Nobel Prize in Medicine and 10 years before she published her seminal paper that led to the prize. More generally, there are valuable contributions that can be made to the economy and society that would never be recognized by a Nobel Prize Committee.
Dr. William Ganz developed a “revolutionary catheter to measure blood flow and heart functions” with co-inventor Dr. Jeremy Swan, an immigrant from Ireland. Ganz, a Jew in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi invasion, managed to survive World War II and came to Los Angeles in 1966, no longer wishing to live under a communist regime. The Swan-Ganz device produced “a phenomenal impact on the understanding of cardiovascular disease,” according to Dr. Jeffery W. Moses, director of the Center for Interventional Vascular Therapy at Columbia University Medical Center. In the 1980s, Ganz worked with Dr. P.K. Shah, an immigrant from India and director of cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, in developing clot-dissolving therapies now considered standard for helping victims of heart attacks.
Research on the Contributions of the Foreign-Born
Paula Stephan (Georgia State University) and Sharon G. Levin (University of Missouri-St. Louis) performed extensive research on the contributions of the foreign-born in 6 areas of scientific achievement. Those areas included election to the National Academy of Sciences/National Academy of Engineering, the launching of biotechnology companies and authors of scientific publications. After examining a study group of more than 4,500 scientists and engineers, Stephan and Levin wrote, “Individuals making exceptional contributions to science and engineering in the U.S. are disproportionately drawn from the foreign-born. We conclude that immigrants have been a source of strength and vitality for U.S. science and, on balance, the U.S. appears to have benefitted from the educational investments made by other countries.”
Among the findings in the Stephan-Levin research were that 19.2 percent of the engineers elected to the National Academy of Engineering are foreign-born, compared to the 13.9 percent of the engineers who were foreign-born in 1980. Also, members of the National Academy of Sciences are “disproportionately foreign-born;” 23.8 percent of the scientists and engineers elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) are foreign-born, compared to 18.3 percent non-natives in the U.S. workforce.
According to Stephan and Levin, “We find the foreign-born to be disproportionately represented among those making exceptional contributions in the physical sciences . . . more than half of the ‘outstanding’ authors in the physical sciences are foreign-born compared to just 20.4 percent of physical scientists who are foreign-born in the scientific labor force as of 1980.”
Stephan and Levin found, “We also find evidence contributions to U.S. science and engineering are disproportionately drawn from the foreign-educated, both at the undergraduate and at the graduate level.”
The research by Stephan and Levin indicate America may be wise to make it easier for those who receive their schooling abroad to immigrate, particularly at the Ph.D. level. But whether we make it easier for those who receive their degrees in America or abroad, it is clear that immigrants make important contributions to science, engineering and related fields in America.