More than one-third of U.S. innovators are foreign born which suggests highly educated immigrants just might be one of America’s most valuable resources.
Despite only making up 13.5 percent of all U.S. residents, 35 percent of those responsible for some of the most important innovations in America are foreign-born people who usually have a PhD in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) field, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
“U.S. innovation really depends on individuals born outside of the U.S.,” said Adams Nager, an economic policy analyst at ITIF. “These are scientists, engineers, people with really, really high education, who’ve made the choice to immigrate to the United States, often seeking the kind of research opportunities, the kind of entrepreneurial opportunities that are offered in the United States that might not have been available in their home country…they bring new ideas and new ways of thinking about things that we desperately need.”
Immigration has been a hot-button issue on the presidential campaign trail, but the candidates rarely distinguish between low-skilled or illegal immigrants, and these high-skilled imports.
The report doesn’t assess the contributions of the former group of immigrants but “it does speak volumes on the value of bringing in the best and brightest engineers from around the world and the benefits that they bring to the U.S. economy,” Nager said. “These immigrants have really profound impacts on the economy and the more of them we can get, the better.”
The other two-thirds of American innovators are predominately white men, but they’re not necessarily brilliant young college dropouts like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or the late Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple. It’s practically the opposite. ITIF found the average age of these innovators is 47, and the vast majority of them have at least one advanced degree.
To reach its conclusions, ITIF spoke with almost 1,000 people who’ve won national awards for their inventions, or who have filed for international patents for their innovative ideas in information technology, life sciences or materials sciences, as well as innovators who filed patents for large advanced-technology companies.
It’s a topic of interest for The White House, which has honored immigrant innovators. President Barack Obama talked about reigniting the spirit of innovation during his final State of the Union address in January and planned to participate in this weekend’s South by Southwest conference (SXSW), which features emerging technologies.
The report researchers expected to find low overall involvement by women and U.S.-born minorities, but they were surprised by the extent of that lack of participation. Women make up only 12 percent of U.S. innovators. U.S.-born minorities — including Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other ethnicities — make up just 8 percent, even though they comprise 32 percent of the total U.S.-born population.
“We have this vast untapped labor pool in African Americans, in Hispanics and in women, who make up 70 percent of the population, who really aren’t tapped at all for creating these types of innovative, marketable products,” Nager said. “There’s nothing about white males, certainly, that would make them inherently any better at innovating than any other group, so if we’re looking to grow the pool of innovators in the future, definitely, greater inclusion among women and minorities is the way to get there.”
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