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At the intersection of innovation and immigration

International students are an essential part of the fabric of American colleges.

Their contributions to ongoing campus dialogues, research initiatives, and cross-cultural exchanges have enhanced not only the caliber, but also the relevance of American universities globally. Yet through a combination of legal challenges and Covid-19 pandemicenrolling international students in the USA decreased by 15% between 2020 and 2021.

This figure was a key motivating factor behind one of the panels of The Changing Role of Universities in the American Innovation System conference, moderated by The Center for Innovation Policy at Duke Law School on March 3 and 4. The panel, titled “Immigration Policy and the Availability and Cultivation of Talent to Support US Universities’ Missions,” explored the importance of effective immigration policy in fostering a culture of innovation in the United States. Comprised of four thought leaders at the intersection of immigration policy and international students, the panel was moderated by Benjamin StuartJD, of Duke Law School.

Esther Brimmer, DPhil, Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators

Panelist Esther Bimmer, DPhil. highlighted the importance of generating a coordinated national strategy to attract international students, with the aim of creating an attractive environment for scientific leadership. Science fields are a focus because while international students make up only 5% of total US university enrollment, more than half of them are employed in STEM fields. Furthermore, during the academic year 2016-2017, 54% of masters and 44% of doctorates in STEM fields have been issued to international students, two numbers that have increased over the past decades.

Data from IIE Open House Report 2019. Chart created by Global Education Services.

Recent legislation from the Biden-Harris administration capitalized on the growing relevance of international students in STEM by expanding study opportunities and strengthening legal protections, a move strongly supported by Brimmer and other immigration policy scholars.

Richard Freeman, PhD, Herbert Ascherman Professor of Economics at Harvard University

Richard Freeman, PhD, followed Brummer’s points by analyzing the impact of international students on a recent scientific breakthrough: the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Starting from a thesis that the American university serves as a global hub for science, technology and innovation, Freeman focused his analysis on C-suites, inventors and clinical trial authors as they relate to big pharma Moderna, Novavax, Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca/Oxford. Freeman found that American college education was a unifying factor in the backgrounds of most leaders and innovators in the vaccine development process, whether they were born in the United States or not. To propagate America’s vast innovation system, Freeman alluded, it was imperative that policymakers develop the frameworks necessary to maintain a pool of international talent.

Caroline Wagner, PhD, associate professor at John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University

Caroline Wagner, PhD, then explained the critical policy frameworks needed to strengthen international collaboration at US research universities. She explained how liberal democracies such as the United States should change their policies in terms of research focus, funding, and approach to keep pace with a more diffuse and rapidly growing international STEM ecosystem. Therefore, research at the university level needed to be better aligned with US national economic and political interests, Wagner said. Starting from this assertion, the accent of the current of Wagner collaborative project with the Berkeley Research Group Institute is to develop and advise on a more deliberate science and technology policy that would balance innovation with the needs of global security.

Dany Bahar, PhD, Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs Practice at Brown University

Dany Bahar, PhD, rounded out the panel with a discussion of the intersection between migration and innovation, with a particular focus on inventions. Through his research, Bahar identified a class of individuals whom he dubbed the Global Mobile Inventors, academics and inventors who patent several new technologies in a multitude of different countries. As these people migrate across borders, they use their technical expertise to contribute positively to the economies of each country in which they reside. After mapping patent data against migration reform trends, Bahar found that negative migration reforms often prevent innovative inventors from moving, resulting in lost innovation and lower economic output.

Graph visualizing the movement of global mobile inventors between twenty nations from 2015 to 2019. Graph and data obtained from Dany Bahar.

Bahar stated, unequivocally, that America needs migrants now more than ever. This powerful statement was met with nods of approval from every panelist, a thought-provoking example of consensus-building by leaders working within a decidedly flawed university system. However, it was the panelists’ common recognition of institutional shortcomings that laid the groundwork for a particularly fruitful discussion, which will likely play out on the national and international political stage for years to come.

Message from Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025