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Dispatch from the ARPA-E Summit 2012: Retaining the Best and Brightest

When panelists at an ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit workshop were asked what could be done to reinvigorate American clean energy manufacturing, participant Bruce Sohn, a Principal at MEGE Associates, declared unequivocally that green cards should be granted to all American Ph.D graduates of foreign origin. The idea of high-skill immigration policy reform is not a new one – in fact, it was the subject of an ITIF report, “Global Forms of Talent: Benchmarking the United States.” Encouraging foreign graduate students to remain in the United States and contribute to the domestic economy is nevertheless a very laudable idea that has had frustratingly little political traction over the years.

Another workshop panelist, Atul Kapadia, CEO of Envia Systems and an Indian immigrant with a MBA from Stanford, observed that hiring the best and brightest applies to companies across the scale. Clean energy companies in particular need a workforce rigorously versed in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Yet a 2010 Immigration Policy Center report found that immigrants make up nearly half of all scientists and engineers with doctorate degrees while only accounting for roughly 12 percent of the United States population. The report also pointed out that close to 70 percent of entrants to the science and engineering fields in America from 1995 to 2006 were immigrants. Furthermore, a 2008 study by the National Venture Capitalist Association found that immigrants had started 25 percent of venture-backed, U.S. public companies in the previous 15 years and fully 40 percent of such companies in the high-tech manufacturing sector. A 2008 report by the National Foundation for American Policy, finally, contended that for every H-1B immigrant worker hired in the United States, at least five new jobs are created. It would thus seem to make sense to try to encourage highly-skilled foreign talent – many of the clean energy innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow – to stay and work in the United States after receiving a quality education here, rather than turn them away and send them to work for competitor nations.

ITIF Senior Analyst Stephen Ezell pointed out that while the 2000s saw many nations steadily liberalize their high-skill immigration policies, the United States unfortunately made restrictions over the same time period – with predictably adverse consequences. “With the United States restricting the number of H-1B visas issued annually to 85,000,” Ezell wrote, “almost 50 percent of highly talented foreign professionals who applied for temporary work in the United States in the years 2006 to 2008 were turned away. Limiting the influx of talented foreign-born science and engineering professionals not only hurts U.S. competitiveness, it may also contribute to the decision of companies to source R&D operations abroad to be closer to local pools of S&E talent.”

Providing 1-year automatic visa extensions to international students who receive STEM doctorates and then providing automatic work permits and expedited residence status upon their obtaining jobs in the United States were key recommendations in “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” the 2007 National Academies of Science report that led to the creation of ARPA-E. To their credit, Representatives Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) introduced separate bills in 2011 to address the issue, yet both remain stuck in committee. “Unless our visa policy is adjusted to allow foreign-born, U.S.-educated students to remain and work in the country after they’ve graduated, we’re going to continue to see our technology industry move overseas,” Flake remarked on his proposal, the STAPLE Act. “Why should we let the next Google be developed abroad when U.S. universities are educating the people who will create it?” Talent – and access to a deep pool of high-skilled STEM workers – underpins innovation.  It is no different for the nascent clean economy, which is pursuing transformational breakthroughs in the energy sector. Increasing the potential of our workforce – and the innovative ideas they produce – is vital to realizing cheap clean energy.

ITIF is a Designated Media Partner at this year’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit.

Photo (Ellis Island with Statue of Liberty backdrop) credit:

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