By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
When the U.S. Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act in August 2022, it committed $53 billion to fund semiconductor research and manufacturing in the United States. As a result of this legislation, advanced chip manufacturers have been racing to build new U.S. factories. Since then, however, it has quickly become apparent that more than fabrication capacity is needed to make the United States a semiconductor powerhouse. What the country needs is raw materials or capital. The primary constraint is a shortage of talent.
According to projections, U.S. semiconductor companies will have 300,000 unfilled vacancies for skilled engineers by 2030. Targeting, training, and recruiting hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens will be impossible in such a compressed time frame. The only way to meet this demand is to recruit more skilled workers abroad. This should not be a problem: the United States has long relied on its companies and universities to attract the best and brightest. Brilliant engineers from all around the world helped me turn Google into a world-leading technology company. But this did not happen because of the U.S. immigration system. It happened despite it. For decades, Washington has failed to pass meaningful immigration reform. If the United States wants to remain the world leader in innovation, it can no longer afford to ignore the talent waiting beyond its borders.
Innovation power—the ability to invent, adopt, and adapt new technologies to advance national power—will determine the future of geopolitics. And this ability to innovate depends, above all, on the strength of a country’s talent pool. U.S. professional sports leagues understand this: basketball and baseball scouts scour the globe to find the best players for their teams. But when recruiting the world’s top AI scientists and semiconductor engineers, the U.S. immigration system has put up unnecessary barriers. Current restrictions are increasingly putting the United States behind countries with points-based immigration systems, like Canada and the United Kingdom, which are aggressively courting advanced tech workers and engineers.
The United States is still the world’s most attractive country for immigrants. Its university system is the world's envy, and its companies lead the world in innovation. But suppose Washington wants to stay ahead and achieve the promise of the CHIPS and Science Act. In that case, it must act to remove the needless complexities to make its immigration system more transparent and create new pathways for the brightest minds to come to the United States.
The Battle For Brains
While the United States' dysfunctional system increasingly deters the world’s top scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs, other countries proactively recruit them. China is particularly active in doing so, with direction coming from the top. 2021 President Xi Jinping declared that “the competition of today’s world is a competition of human talent and education.” At his instruction, the nation, which suffers from an exodus of talent, began to spend serious money to woo back native-born STEM graduates. Today, Chinese research institutions offer some postdoctoral researchers three times the salaries they could make at a U.S. university. Skilled Chinese engineers and scientists who previously moved abroad to work are being provided powerful incentives to return home.
U.S. allies have significantly stepped up efforts to bring in the best talent. Last year, United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a scheme to target and attract the world’s top 100 young AI researchers. The United Kingdom now has a High Potential Individual visa program specifically aimed at graduates of the world’s top universities. In 2015, Canada created an Express Entry system, which allows high-skilled foreign nationals to become permanent residents in only a year. The results are already showing: between 2016 and 2019 alone, the number of Indian STEM masters students studying in Canada rose by 182 percent. During the same period, the number of Indian students studying in the same fields in the United States dropped 38 percent.
To compete in the decades to come, the U.S. economy must attract high-skilled immigrants who will build future technologies, from large language models to quantum computers. Its complex and restrictive immigration rules put off many talented workers who want to come to the United States. These rules mainly affect foreign students, who currently make up over 70 percent of U.S. graduate students in computer science. Upon graduation, international students who wish to remain and contribute to the U.S. economy usually seek to do so by applying for an H-1B visa. But H-1B visas are allotted not on a candidate’s relative talent but through a random lottery with a success rate as low as 11 percent. Most foreign U.S.-trained Ph.D. graduates in artificial intelligence who consider leaving the country cite its immigration system as a main reason. Although U.S. universities continue to train many of the most capable scientists and engineers globally, other countries are increasingly enjoying the benefits.
There is broad bipartisan support for common-sense immigration reform. Yesterday, 70 experts and former national security officials published an open letter calling on the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party to attract and retain global STEM talent to maintain U.S. leadership in technology. Last year, in a poll conducted by the Economic Innovation Group, 60 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Democrats supported more skilled immigration to the United States. Seventy-three percent of the U.S. public favor a visa allowing international graduates in STEM subjects to work in the United States. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have made proposals to increase U.S. competitiveness by attracting more high-skilled foreign workers. But these proposals have been blocked year after year. Last year, there was bipartisan support for making available additional green cards with shorter wait times for STEM PhDs. Yet, ultimately, this initiative was stripped from the final National Defense Authorization Act.
Still, there are various ways to make targeted changes with the backing of both parties. Today, for example, even a physics or math Ph.D. from the United States’ best universities—precisely the type of person needed to spur innovation and scientific discovery—has no clear path toward residency in the country. Congress should address this problem by creating a conditional green card for STEM Ph. D.s, perhaps initially focusing on U.S. partner countries. This visa would give recipients permanent residence for two to three years, with an extension option upon review. There is precedent for creating such a unique entry program: conditional green cards have been successfully used for investor visas, and the United States has, at various times, tailored visas toward nationals of allied countries. Perhaps the most notable example is the E-3 visa, which applies to specialist workers from Australia and could be expanded to other nations. This new green card would make the immigration process for STEM Ph. D.s more streamlined and predictable. It would also remove pressure on other visa categories with numerical limits and country caps and allow green card holders to move freely between jobs. At the same time, this new green card should come with sensible restrictions, limiting eligibility to a recognized list of leading research institutions.
The Competition For The World’s Top Scientists
The United States needs to retain and attract international talent to win the global talent competition. As Harvard political scientist Graham Allison and I have argued, the U.S. government should make a concerted effort to identify and recruit top researchers from across the globe. A unique green card for exceptional scientists would allow the United States to maintain its edge in technology and help it confront the tremendous geopolitical challenges of the coming years.
The U.S. government has a successful history of using such a strategy in the decades around World War II. In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States attracted a generation of talent, including luminaries like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. The two left Nazi Germany and fascist Italy before coming to the United States, where their research and other émigré scientists were instrumental to the Manhattan Project. Today, Washington needs to do more to attract leading scientists from nonaligned or hostile countries, even if doing so requires more extensive security screening. The United States missed a significant opportunity last year when U.S. President Joe Biden could not persuade Congress to waive visa requirements for top Russian engineers and scientists seeking to escape President Vladimir Putin’s rule. The United States should also do more to attract Chinese scientists and innovators, who have been a massive boon to the U.S. economy. Since 2000, Chinese STEM Ph. D.s have created startups valued at over $100 billion. If Washington wants innovators to start their businesses in the United States rather than China, it must be more welcoming to Chinese talent. Although much has been made in Washington of the security risks posed by a few foreign researchers accused of intellectual property theft, far more significant harm will be done to the country over the long term by keeping out entrepreneurial Chinese scientists.
Washington must also make it easier for the world’s top entrepreneurs to come to the United States. More than half of U.S. companies valued at over $1 billion were founded or co-founded by immigrants. But, unlike in Canada and Australia, there is no designated startup visa for entrepreneurs who want to find a business in the United States. Congress should resurrect an earlier CHIPS and Science Act version that would have created a new visa category for startup founders. And that is only the start. Several other visa classes should be made, including ones for foreign nationals of high aptitude who, in return for residency, agree to work for federal or state governments in areas that most need immigration. Similar to pathways to citizenship for those enrolling in the U.S. military, the United States should use new visas to draw exceptional talent into local government.
There are already signs of progress. The State Department plans to make it easier for millions of international professionals to renew their visas without traveling abroad. The department should also relax requirements for the J-1 visa, which requires most holders to return to their home countries and stay there for at least two years before they can return to the United States.
The global contest for talent is too important to hold up these reforms for an elusive bipartisan immigration grand bargain. Hard though it will be, opening up more pathways for highly skilled workers to enter the United States will be vital to preserving and promoting national competitiveness and security. Without such changes, the promise of the CHIPS and Science Act will remain unfulfilled. The power of the American dream has long allowed the United States to attract the best and the brightest. This advantage rests on Washington’s ability to field the best team for the coming geopolitical competition. The United States cannot afford to lose it.