Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the Case for Immigration Reform

passportBy Weiyi Zhao

On my way to work this morning, the usual humdrum of traffic and the dreary sky over a shutdown Washington was briefly forgotten when I heard the news about this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry on NPR. Martin Karplus of Harvard University and the University of Strasbourg in France, Michael Levitt of Stanford University, and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California share the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their computer simulations that can analyze and predict complex chemical reactions. To learn more about the science behind their research and how it impacted biochemistry, read the latest post on ASBMB Wild Types.

These three scientists were born in other countries and became naturalized citizens of the United States. Karplus was born in Austria; Levitt in South Africa; and Warshel was born in Israel (Monday’s Nobel laureate for Physiology and Medicine Thomas Sudhof was born in Germany). The story on NPR was a bit heavy-handed on this point. However, being a transplant from the P.R.C myself, I can’t help but to find these stories to be heartwarming. The U.S. has always been perceived as a unique harbor for immigrants and refugees. Certainly not all immigrants have been accepted with open arms. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII are just a few examples of darker periods in U.S. history. But nonetheless, don’t the immigrant pasts of this week’s Nobel Prize laureates speak volumes about the opportunities this country has offered to people looking for a better life and more opportunities?

High-skilled immigrants play a crucial role in keeping the U.S. in the lead when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship. According to a working paper by William R Kerr at Harvard Business School, immigrants account for roughly a quarter of U.S. workers in the STEM fields. A 2012 PCAST report on undergraduate STEM education stated that in order to retain our competitiveness in science and technology, the U.S. needs 1 million more STEM professionals over the next decade. That means increasing the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by about 34% annually. Currently, fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in STEM complete a STEM degree. While the PCAST report is primarily focused on improving U.S. STEM graduation rates and undergraduate science education, revamping immigration policy for high-skilled workers will make it easier for them to stay in the U.S.

The U.S. currently caps the high-skilled worker visa program, H-1B, to 65,000 a year. In a bill proposed by the Senate in June, that number would be raised to 110,000 per year with 25,000 more set aside for those with advanced STEM degrees. The Senate bill also proposes to exempt professors, researchers, multinational executives and those who have graduated from a U.S. university with job offers and degrees in STEM from existing green-card limits. Unfortunately, despite passing in the Senate, the House is still dragging its feet. Now with the government shutdown, immigration reform is in even greater peril.

Despite the shutdown, a group of about 200 demonstrators rallied outside of the U.S. Capitol yesterday for immigration reform. Whenever Congress does get back to work, I hope that they will keep immigration reform on their legislative agenda.

To learn more about the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, visit: www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/

Three ASBMB members were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

To learn more about the Senate immigration bill, Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Ace of 2013 (S. 744) visit: www.nilc.org/irsenate2013.html

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