Why Nobel-winning scientists are talking about immigration

All six of the 2016 Nobel laureates affiliated with US universities are immigrants. Some are speaking out about the importance of open borders for the advancement of science.

Michael Dwyer/AP
Oliver Hart (l.) the Andrew E. Furer Professor of Economics at Harvard, sits with his wife, Rita Goldberg, before speaking during a news conference at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, after winning the Nobel Prize in economics.

Amidst brewing anti-immigration sentiment in Europe and the United States, some Nobel Prize laureates this year are noting their own status as immigrants and commenting on immigration policies, with some highlighting the importance of relatively open borders for the advancement of science.

Of the 2016 Nobel laureates announced so far, all six of those affiliated with US universities are immigrants. Five of them were born in Britain, and one in Finland; they hold positions on campuses including Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Northwestern University.

British scientists have been the most vocal about immigration, amid ongoing debate over the country's recent vote to leave the European Union, in which tightening borders and cracking down on immigration are major components.

"I think the resounding message that should go out all around the world is that science is global," Sir James Fraser Stoddart, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a professor at Northwestern University, who was born in Scotland, told The Hill. "It’s particularly pertinent to have these discussions in view of the political climate on both sides of the pond at the moment.... I think the United States is what it is today largely because of open borders."

The laureate told The Guardian that his research group at Northwestern University has students and scientists from a dozen different countries and that bringing in international talent raises the bar overall.

"I got colleagues saying 'Don't you know that our people are better?' " he said of his early career in Britain. "When you get people from Messina or Madrid moving to a cold place like Sheffield, they're serious about science.... It's better for everyone."

Duncan Haldane, a British-born professor at Princeton University and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, told The Guardian that scientists should be given protected status for visas. He said he had considered returning to Britain, but expressed concerns that research grants from the European Research Council could dry up as a result of Britain's exit from the European Union.

Foreign-born scientists winning Nobel Prizes for the US is not a 2016 anomaly. In an article for The Huffington Post in December 2015, James Witte, the director of the Institute for Immigration Research at George Mason University, wrote that from 1901 to 2015, 31 percent of US Nobel laureates were not born in the US, although no more than 15 percent of Americans were ever foreign-born during that time.

Increasingly, American immigrants are highly skilled and highly educated, according to a September report from The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. "The prospects for long run economic growth in the United States would be considerably dimmed without the contributions of high-skilled immigrants," the researchers wrote.

While the US is credited by many of these scientists for providing robust research opportunities for immigrant scientists, the simmering anti-immigrant sentiment in the country during this election season also elicits concern for some.

Phil Baty, the rankings editor for the Times Higher Education, told Inside Higher Ed that Nobel Prizes are an example of how global collaborative efforts produce "groundbreaking results," a point that he thinks politicians should remember.

"But the 2016 Nobels should also serve as a serious warning to those politicians, most notably in the U.K., but also of course in the U.S. and elsewhere, who would seek to place major restrictions on the free movement of international talent," Mr. Baty said. "This would be a serious blow to science, and in turn a serious blow to humanity."

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