There’s an article out today from John Maraganore (CEO of Alnylam, immediate past chair of the BIO industry group) and his successor at BIO, Jeremy Levin (CEO of Ovid Therapeutics). They’re making the point that the current administration’s restrictions on legal immigration (real, attempted, and threatened) are a direct threat to the biopharma industry.
And they’re right. The process can be abused, and it has been. But those problems shouldn’t overshadow the much bigger point that the United States has long been a place where the world’s scientific talent has come to study, to work, to discover, and to live. This has been a huge factor in the country’s rise to its leading role in science and technology, and it’s important to remember that there is no law of nature that says that the United States always has to have that role. There was a time when the US was something of a backwater – the really exciting work was all in Germany, France, England, and other places. If we really put our minds to it, we can become a backwater again. There are many, many other countries in the world that recognize the importance of both basic and applied research and would like to attract talented, hard-working people to their own efforts. These folks don’t have to come to the United States – they can go somewhere else. If we keep yanking the welcome mat away, that’s just what they’ll do. Who would blame them?
The US still has world-leading research, both in its universities and in its companies. But the universities can go downhill, and the companies can choose to do their work somewhere else. Decline can be a choice, and I think that taking a nativist approach is definitely one way that you can choose it. Anyone who is fine with shutting off immigration because they take an attitude of “American research in American labs done by Americans” needs to think through what we mean by “American”. This is a place, but it’s more than a place: it’s an idea. My neighbors include a family from India and a family from China, but they are Americans to me. Their children went to school with mine. I’m glad that they’re here.
My coworkers over my research career have come from more countries than I can count, and many of them have become American citizens and raised families here as well. To adapt a phrase, they are helping make this country great. That’s how we got whatever greatness we have, and anyone who thinks we can keep it by slamming the door is deeply mistaken. That will cut off the flow of new talent that has been coming here from all over the planet, and it will help to drive away some of the people that have already come here but start to regret that choice. As a patriotic American myself, I think that would be a tragedy, and an idiotic one because it was unnecessary and all of our own making.