Barring Foreign Talent Is An Assault on Biotech Innovation

John Maraganore, CEO, Alnylam; immediate past chair, BIO

As a first generation American (John Maraganore) and a proud immigrant (Jeremy Levin), we’re appalled by the relentless, short-sighted assaults by this Administration on legal immigration.

The latest attempt specifically aims to limit, and potentially shut down, immigration to America of the world’s best and brightest minds.

This is precisely the time we need these bright minds.

Jeremy Levin, CEO, Ovid Therapeutics; chairman, BIO

Thankfully, in light of a suit brought by MIT and Harvard, the Administration dropped its proposal that would have prohibited international students holding F-1 visas from staying in the United States if they were taking their classes online, as most students will be doing come fall.

Many international students are in the biological sciences and in medical schools. With COVID-19 spiraling out of control here, there is no good reason to limit the entry of international students and workers. There are good reasons to welcome them and their creative problem-solving skills.

Actions that prevent the best and the brightest students, scientists and technologists from coming to America are an assault on American innovation. These corrosive attacks are coming at an increasing pace. The threat to international students came just weeks after the Administration proposed restrictions on new H1-B worker visas. Officials claimed that the impact of such actions, when combined with extended restrictions on new green cards, would bar as many as 525,000 foreign workers from the country for the remainder of the year.

These workers are needed to do critically valuable work, including helping our country better respond to COVID-19.

These anti-immigrant directives, one after another, are like waves striking a shore; they relentlessly erode the competitiveness of many sectors dependent on driving innovation, including America’s biotechnology sector.

For decades, the U.S. biotech industry was envied around the world for its success in attracting brilliant minds from abroad who sought to advance their education and careers here. The formula for success is rather simple. The generous support of US taxpayers for the National Institutes of Health, the farsighted establishment of excellent research institutions that compete for those federal grants, and a dynamic entrepreneurial economy that translates scientific discoveries into medicines are all part of what have combined to make the US the world leader in biomedicine.

All of it begins with people.

The people drawn to be part of this amazing enterprise as young students – immigrants who came here, began to fulfill their career potential, settled down and started families here – they are the ones who helped make our country the most powerful producer of novel medicines, vaccines, diagnostics and innovations in environmental, industrial and agricultural biotechnology.

Just over half of the 69,000 biomedical researchers in the United States are foreign-born. Of the Nobel Prizes in medicine awarded between 1960 and 2019, nearly half were awarded to immigrants who came to the United States to study and work. International students represent over 20 percent of all STEM degrees at American universities and 44 percent of PhDs.

Many of these graduates gain skills here in the US and then go home to save lives and contribute in their own countries. But the majority choose to stay here: The National Science Foundation reported that nearly three out of four foreign doctorate recipients were still in the United States 10 years after receiving their degrees.

CEOs born outside the U.S. now lead some of the most important biotechnology companies racing to find treatment and vaccines for COVID-19. Research suggests that immigrants are overrepresented compared to the general population as founders of biotech firms, and are more likely to start companies focused on human therapeutics.

Raising barriers now against inventors and scientists places obstacles in front of what our industry can accomplish – and make no mistake, our industry is key to restoring normalcy through new treatments, prophylaxis and vaccines for COVID-19.

The virtual “Go Away” sign we’ve posted in the form of immigration restrictions means scientific researchers, biomedical entrepreneurs, IT experts, doctors and nurses will find someplace else to study and then contribute to the nation that educated them.

We cannot afford to drive them away. Our competitive advantage as a country rests in large part on our ability to continue to attract the best and brightest immigrants.

Diverse perspectives enrich problem solving and lead to scientific breakthroughs. Every time we further restrict immigration or turn away foreign students, we put America and Americans at risk.  

Instead, we need to welcome and encourage the best and the brightest to come to the USA.  This is a great nation and with them we will retain and enhance our leadership.

Over the past decade, eight top pharmaceutical companies alone have received H-1B approvals for over 3,300 scientists. We’d like to double that, not reduce it. Rather than putting hurdles in front of foreign students, we’d like to welcome them with grants and loans to help them pay for the cost of American higher education.

Rather than giving in to short-sighted policies, we’d like to build upon America’s remarkable scientific achievements and vision of a nation that welcomes immigrants to our shores.

In his final speech as President, Ronald Reagan issued a warning:

“If we ever close the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

It isn’t only the future prosperity of our nation that is at stake. It is our lives, the lives of our children and importantly America’s leadership of the world.

John Maraganore is the CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and immediate past chair of BIO; Jeremy Levin is the CEO of Ovid Therapeutics and the chairman of BIO.

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