Over 80% Top Science Students Second Generation Immigrants

Among the major consequences of curtailing immigration to the United States would be losing access to the world’s best and brightest — and their children and grandchildren. As Forbes reported:

A new study from the National Foundation for American Policy found a remarkable 83% (33 of 40) of the finalists of the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search were the children of immigrants. The competition organized each year by the Society for Science & the Public is the leading science competition for U.S. high school students. In 2017, the talent search competition was renamed the Regeneron Science Talent Search, after its new sponsor Regeneron Pharmaceuticals,and a new group of 40 finalists – America’s next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians – are competing in Washington, D.C., from March 9 to 15, 2017.

Both family-based and employment-based immigrants were parents of finalists in 2016. In fact, 75% – 30 out of 40 – of the finalists had parents who worked in America on H-1B visas and later became green card holders and U.S. citizens. That compares to seven children who had both parents born in the United States.

To put that in perspective, even though former H-1B visa holders represent less than 1% of the U.S. population, they were four times more likely to have a child as a finalist in the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search than were parents who were both born in the United States.

Moreover, 27 out of the 40 finals — 68 percent — were born to parents who had initially arrived to the U.S. as international students. That means policies preventing foreign students for settling in the country after they graduate would likely deprive us of many future innovators, entrepreneurs, and scientists.

While seven of the finalists had both parents born in the U.S., more than half had origins from just two countries: India (14) and China (11), which are increasingly becoming scientific powerhouses in their own right (and are thus trying to retain and draw back their citizens). It is worth pointing out that Americans of Indian and Chinese birth each represent only about 1% of the U.S. population, which speaks to their outsized contributions in our nation’s success.

However, many other nationalities were represented in the contest, including Canada, Cyprus, Iran, Japan, Nigeria, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The evidence indicates that the children of immigrants are increasing their influence on science in America. Sixty percent (24 of 40) of the finalists of the 2004 Intel Science Talent Search had at least one immigrant parent. In 2011, that proportion rose to 70% (28 of 40) who had at least one immigrant. And in 2016, the number rose again to 83% (33 of 40) of the finalists of the Intel Science Talent Search who had at least one immigrant parent.

The science competition has been called the “Junior Nobel Prize” and more than 95% of winners of the Intel Science Talent Search (STS) traditionally have pursued science as a career, with 70% earning Ph.D.’s or M.D.’s. Many of the students I interviewed hope to start their own companies.

In 2016, seven of the nine top awards were earned by the children of immigrants, including first place prizes for innovation and basic research. Amol Punjabi won the First Place Medal of Distinction for Basic Research for developing software that could be used by pharmaceutical companies to combat cancer and heart disease.

The data are overwhelming: immigrants of all generations from across dozens of countries are making critical contributions to the nation, and not just in this esteemed high school contest. Consider the following data from The Atlantic:

Immigrants have historically helped boost the ingenuity of some American regions and industries, according to a new paper by the University of Chicago economists Ufuk Akcigit and John Grigsby, and Harvard Business School’s Tom Nicholas. The authors looked at sectors with higher shares of foreign-born inventors between 1940 and 2000, and found that those areas produced more patents and inventions than those with a higher share of native-born inventors. (This is similar to findings in a 2014 paper that found that fields welcoming a large number of Jewish emigres from Nazi Germany saw patents rise 31 percent.) Why count patents? Patents are associated with economic growth: In a separate paper, the authors find that the states with higher shares of patents filed experienced more economic growth than those that were less inventive.

Akcigit and colleagues also looked at geographic areas with high numbers of immigrants and found those produced more inventions and patents. In the most inventive states—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Massachusetts—20.6 percent of the population were international migrants. In the least inventive states, just 1.7 percent were international migrants. (The authors controlled for population density by examining the number of patents filed and number of immigrants per capita.)

These findings are similar to a widely-cited paper from 2009 by Jennifer Hunt of McGill University and Marjolaine Gauthier-Loiselle of Princeton, which found that immigrants file patents at double the native rate, primarily because more immigrants hold degrees in science and engineering. A one-percentage-point rise in the share of immigrant college graduates, they found, increases patents per capita by 6 percent.

All these practical benefits aside, there is of course the inherent moral and humanistic element: these are individuals seeking a better life for themselves and their children, and in the process often want to give back to the world as professionals, inventors, or business owners. By mere accident of birth, they ended up in political, economic, or educational systems that do not allow them to realize their full potential. But they are willing to work hard to change that, whether in their own countries or by moving to a whole other society.

The children of immigrants among the finalists I interviewed understood the sacrifices their parents made to ensure them a better life. And, it is important to remember, all of these children, whether born here or naturalized, are as American as you and me.

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna appreciates all her Nigerian-born parents have done to give her the best education possible. “They sacrificed so much for me,” said Augusta, who experimented with ways to improve the properties of cement, which has practical applications that include helping to prevent oil spills. “My father grew up during the civil war in Nigeria and couldn’t afford an education.”

Despite the obstacles, Augusta’s father, Tobias Nna, overcame the odds and was trained as a physical therapist. He came to the United States on an H-1B visa. “Our goal in coming to America was to provide an opportunity for our children to study, have access to journals and computers,” Tobias Nna told me. “I’m very happy they have taken advantage of these opportunities.”

“Seeing what my parents did to make a better life for their children has inspired me to do everything I can to succeed,” said Augusta. “This is the land of opportunity.”

Given the benefits we reap as a society, both practically or morally, how can anyone object to that arrangement?

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