Not Science Fiction: American immigration politics threaten scientific advances

The year 2017 was an anti-science roller-coaster ride. From the plentiful deniers of climate change to the seven words rumored to be banished from the CDC’s vocabulary[1] to Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s questionable words equating fossil fuel consumption with the prevention of acts of sexual violence,[2] science seemed to be the biggest loser of 2017. Even the tax bill, the capstone of the year, appeared to be steeped in anti-science rhetoric, with several proposed provisions aimed at dismantling research. Among these were the taxation of tuition assistance for graduate researchers and increased taxation of companies examining renewable energy sources, both of which thankfully failed to make it into the final bill.[3]

Alongside all the powerful and disturbing hits to science, the country continues to see our administration make tactical maneuvers against immigration. As a humanitarian, I feel a deep sense of indignation that we have forgotten our history as a nation of immigrants and turned our backs on people who enrich our country both by strengthening our workforce and adding to our cultural melting pot. As a member of the medical community, however, I am worried that the disassembly of our immigration program will act as yet another catalyst to dismantle the country’s scientific endeavors.

From 1960 to 2014, 28 of the Nobel Prize winners in medicine have been scientists and physicians who immigrated to America. The numbers are similarly high in the fields of chemistry and physics, with 23 and 22 immigrants winning in these fields, respectively. Thankfully, nobody in our political administration has openly come out against cancer research, but considering that in 2014, 42% of the researchers in the top seven American cancer research centers are from 50-plus foreign countries, the administration placing severe restrictions on immigration deals a huge blow to science in our country and is in effect a stance against cancer research. Even the inventor of chemotherapy, George Clowes, immigrated to the United States from England to conduct research on chemotherapy and went on to found the American Association for Cancer Research.[4] In terms of the contemporary research landscape, American graduate institutions award approximately 30,000 doctoral degrees in the fields of science and engineering each year. Foreign-born researchers are responsible for 40 percent of these degrees. A high number of academic institutions coupled with more job opportunities in the fields of science and technology, as well as higher wages, are some of the factors attracting researchers from abroad to the US.[5]

So what would the American scientific landscape without immigrant scientists and medical researchers look like? In a word: prehistoric. The Nature Index ranks America as the number-one research-producing country, and had immigration restrictions prevented the aforementioned individuals from completing their research on American soil, perhaps we would still be learning about the four humors and spending our clinical years of medical school bleeding people with leeches. Most of us completing medical school will be entering into clinical practice that would not be possible without the contributions of researchers, many of whom are foreign-born. I hope that as a medical community, 2018 is an opportunity for us to recognize and celebrate the efforts of our colleagues who come from faraway lands to conduct valuable and potentially lifesaving research here in America before Jurassic immigration policies further threaten the well-being of our patients.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2017/12/16/health/cdc-banned-words/index.html

[2] http://time.com/5007787/rick-perry-fossil-fuels-sexual-assault/

[3] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/12/researchers-win-some-lose-some-final-us-tax-bill

[4] https://www.nafsa.org/_/File/_/ie_mayjun15_front_lines.pdf

[5] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-the-us-produce-too-m/

Photo Credit: Victoria Pickering

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