Professor Examines Immigration Policy and Talent

Posted: November 8, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Jocelyn Rappaport

David Hart
David Hart

Talent is a key factor to ensuring that universities and businesses continue generating scientific ideas and technological innovations that contribute to economic prosperity. In his policy brief “Global Flows of Talent: Benchmarking the United States,” David Hart, associate professor of public policy and a board member of the nonprofit think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, examines this factor, analyzing how immigration policy affects the flow of talent.

Hart compares the ability of the United States to that of seven high-income nations (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) to attract highly skilled, highly educated people.

“Since Sept.11, 2001, the United States has been struggling to decide how best to handle immigration policy. As other nations are making it easier for talented immigrants to enter their country, we have been sending mixed messages,” says Hart.

Hart focuses on the emerging global knowledge economy in which ideas are an increasingly critical resource that determines the success of organizations, regions and nations. Ideas are much less limited by borders than the key resources of previous eras, such as labor and energy.

As Hart notes, immigrants may become nodes in knowledge networks that facilitate the international flow of ideas. Such networks can also accelerate the generation of ideas, analogous to telephone networks, which grow in value as more people join in.

Although some of the data are difficult to compare on a cross-national basis, it appears that Australia and Canada have concentrated on bringing in highly skilled workers on a permanent basis, while the United States has focused on temporary workers.

The best data available at the moment are on foreign students. Hart says the ability of the United States to attract foreign students appears to be deteriorating. Since 2001, the flow of students to the United States decreased by about 25 percent (or 70,000 per year).

Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada all receive a heavy flow of foreign students. The home countries of foreign students vary significantly, however. In 2004, students from China made up at least 5 percent of the foreign students in all eight countries. For universities in the United States, students from India make up the largest student population from one nation.

According to Hart, there are three broad approaches regarding the immigration of highly skilled workers that these countries take:

  • Australia, Canada and New Zealand see these immigrants as a source of economic growth and implement their policy in favor of immigration of highly skilled workers through a point system.
  • The United States and the United Kingdom have historically attracted immigrants of all skill levels and do not necessarily favor one level.
  • France, Germany and Japan tend to view highly skilled immigrants more as threats to native workers than as positive additions; however, leaders in those countries more recently have tried to change both public perception and policy.

Hart points out that one major exception to these generalizations is the European Union, which has as one of its purposes facilitation of economic integration and so fosters migration at all levels across the borders of the 25 nations that comprise it. He also notes that in all eight of the countries he studied, immigration is a contentious and central issue in national politics.

How immigrants are selected and how many are selected are two distinct issues, Hart says. He suggests that the United States might plausibly implement a point system that gives preference to students or workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, along with reforming the H-1B visa program. These reforms would include delegating more responsibility to the executive branch, such as oversight of the program to ensure that employers pay prevailing wages to those provided visas. Hart also endorses, for the short term, a U.S. policy that would make it easier for foreign students to attend school here.

However, he cautions against simply devising policy on the basis of short-term national needs.

“The United States has both the responsibility and the capability to act on a long-term, global vision — a future in which the global talent pool both circulates widely and expands rapidly, spreading prosperity in the context of greater openness and interdependence.”

Ultimately, the United States and other countries should have a balance of trade in ideas and minds, he feels, with knowledge crossing borders in all directions and contributing to a larger global pool from which all may draw.

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