In the 1990s, the US administration decided the best way to protect wages for American workers was by making it very difficult for those pesky foreign science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates living here to get work visas. Student visas remained easy to get, it was okay to spend money to live in the US, but getting paid was a no-no.

Result: America trained a lot of foreign Ph.D.s who then wanted to remain in the US but were instead forced to return home and become competitors. It was American nationalism coupled with warmed-over 1930s protectionism. Since that time, the United States government has spent $5 billion doing 'outreach' to try and turn more Americans into scientists, when the most efficient approach, that would have cost nothing at all, was to turn more scientists into Americans.

A group of economists have finally shook off the haze of those Clinton years and recognize that not driving Ph.D.s out of the US would be good for everyone. They looked at 100 research universities covering 23 science and engineering fields and concluded that both U.S. and foreign students are "essential causal inputs into scientific discovery" - if you are a fan of intangibles, they also argue that student diversity boosts research.

This makes sense. While the US leads the world in Nobel prizes and in science output, it can't escape mention that a lot of those researchers were not born here. They became US citizens. Any knowledge of populations statistics tells you why getting rid of protectionism and nationalism will increase the quality of science; if I gave you a choice of 10 smart people from one country or 10 smart people from 10 countries, you are wise to take the latter. The pool of available people in your own country may be large, but the pool of foreign-born researchers is primarily the very brightest from other countries.

No one is inherently smart just because they were born in a certain country, of course. But by making more scientists into Americans, we do make Americans overall a little bit smarter. And legal immigrants bring other cultural benefits also, if we go back to intangibles again.

University of Colorado Boulder economics Professor Keith Maskus notes, "What it comes down to is that people trained in different traditions tend to have different specialties in terms of how they come to a teamwork environment. And teamwork is more productive, more efficient if you have people with divergent ideas, so they can play off of each other. It doesn't matter so much on a factory line, but it matters a lot in an intellectual sense when you're trying to be innovative and creative."

People from other countries think differently than Americans do - and that is good. On the wall in my kitchen is a plaque I brought back from Bulgaria.

It means, 'if you wake up in the morning and you don't see the sun, either you are dead, or you are the sun'. Americans always chuckle when they hear that, because we don't think that way - 'you are the sun'. But eastern Europeans do.

Science is creative and it benefits from different perspectives. Congress wants to revamp the U.S. immigration system and most of the focus is on people here illegally, the least educated - Republicans are resistant to that because they know when California gave amnesty to illegal immigrants the last time, in the mid-1980s, it turned the state that gave America Ronald Reagan into a super-majority for Democrats and they worry that promises of social services will do that in other states too.

But this is a different beast, PhDs are drivers of tax revenue, not beneficiaries. While American academics are overwhelmingly Democrats, many of the Ph.D.s who would remain in the US if our work visa mess were cleared up could not get faculty jobs anyway, they will instead work in the private sector and be as politically diverse as society outside academia is, all while paying taxes and generating benefits to the economy. The House of Representatives stalled a June bill that included sensible work visa reform because of other things tacked on by the Democratic-controlled Senate, but it is a worthwhile negotiating point. 

The Senate bill that got stalled would have granted a green card to foreign students who obtain a Ph.D. in science or engineering at American universities. It's ideal; they studied in America, they want to remain in America, let's let them work in America and be Americans. Right now, immigration officers mostly care about whether or not students have the money to return home after they get that Ph.D. Really, there is a wealth consideration, to make sure smart people leave the country.

If the fear is that foreign PhDs would "displace" American ones, why do we keep spending billions of dollars on STEM outreach? Worrying about foreign PhDs displacing Americans is nothing but academic nationalism - and since politically the overwhelming majority of academics are for more immigration, they shouldn't be shutting our borders when it comes to their own fields.

Citation: Keith E. Maskus, A. Mushfiq Mobarak, and Eric T. Stuen , 'Doctoral Students and U.S. Immigration Policy', Science 1 November 2013, 562-563. DOI:10.1126/science.1239572