Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The next Bill Gates

Via The American Prospect , a fantastic article by Fareed Zakaria (Washington Post, subscription required) about how increased U.S. visa restrictions are reducing the flow of researchers into the U.S. from abroad. Zakaria urges Condoleeza Rice to revise the current visa guidelines, which have become much more strict in the wake of September 11th. We want to keep out the next Mohammed Atta, but let in in the next Bill Gates.
In the fairly large molecular biology lab where I did my Ph.D., there were 12 postdocs, but only two had been born in the U.S. American-borns were more numerous among the graduate students, but I have seen other institutions where foreign students were in the majority. Quite often these postdocs and students sought to complete their careers in the United States, which amounted to a terrific profit for the U.S. at the expense of whichever country which gave the university training. Zakaria quotes the National Science Board that 38% of science and engineering doctorate holders are foreign born. If we raise the immigration bar on these people too high, they'll just go somewhere else and power some other nation's research institutes.

Zakaria gives pretty short shrift to the balance of these values against security concerns. One of the creepiest revelations from the early days after 9/11 was that Mohammed Atta and others had lived with American families in Florida while attending flight training school. I remember wondering if Americans would therefore think twice before showing kindness to some other immigrant student. The point is, how could you possibly know? The border remains the correct place to try to make that distinction. And I think the job is pretty near impossible.

Any ideas out there?

UPDATES: Yes, I know Bill Gates was born in America, as were others, including me.

Check out the McKinsey-style bullet point presentation of Winning Argument on this. Must one always be either right or wrong? Anyway, some good links.

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