Editor’s Note: Ushma S. Neill PhD is vice president, scientific education & training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and editor at large of the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Follow her @ushmaneill. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
President Donald Trump on Monday signed a proclamation freezing new visas for many foreign workers through the end of the year. Not only will this result in an immediate threat to the US response to Covid-19, but it could massively impact the overall health of the nation.
Much has already been written about the vital importance of non-American doctors and nurses, but an equally critical but less discussed group at risk are scientists, who so often form the foundation of American innovation and scientific prowess.
Under the auspices of protecting American jobs from the impact of SARS-CoV2, Trump already signed an earlier executive order that curtailed some immigration in April and shut American embassies.
In May, a proclamation was issued specifically targeting Chinese nationals and denying them F and J visas used to attend graduate and postgraduate programs in the US. Trump’s new action suspends the issuance of new visas H-1B visas for professional workers; H-2Bs for non-agricultural seasonal workers, J-1s for cultural exchanges and L-1s for intracompany transfers.
Unexpectedly, it does not – at least for the moment – freeze the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program that allows college graduates to stay in the US for up to three years after graduation or F visas largely used for graduate studies.
However, the restrictions from this latest proclamation will still have a damaging effect on academic biomedical institutions, where a significant number of researchers work in US university labs on the visas targeted: J, H, and L (The most recent government data shows that in 2018 almost 135,000 scientific doctoral students, about 31% of the total, and over 20,000 postdoctoral researchers – 53% of all scientific postgrad researchers – were in the US on temporary visas).
Physicians and scientists are among the professions most revered in the world. If you stop to picture a physician or scientist, what do you picture beyond the scrubs or white coat? Increasingly in the US, that person with the pocket protector originally hailed from Asia or Europe, and often from Africa or South America.
Where I currently work, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in New York City, about 70% of the approximately 600 postdoctoral trainees at any given time are supported by visas, with significant percentages of postdocs hailing from China and India, and the balance largely from other Asian and European countries. I know the exact numbers for my own institution, but it would not be hyperbolic to predict that if this freeze on immigrant visas is extended or expanded beyond the end of the year, most academic biomedical centers could eventually lose between 30-80% of their scientific workforce and 25% of their clinical trainees.
The impact would be smaller in the immediate term given that the Trump proclamation allows existing visa holders to remain in the US, but still, at MSK around 100 new scientific and medical trainees this year would not be allowed to commence their research. The long-term impact is even more frightening, as so many talented researchers may not even bother trying to navigate the red tape and anxiety of US immigration. We may have already lost a place of primacy in the scientific world and even fewer will come in the future, choosing to practice in their home countries or where immigration policies are less hostile. Without immigrant scientists, American institutions would be less productive: there would be fewer and slower advances in cancer treatment, in vaccine development, in basic biology. In essence, American labs need the innovation and ideas that these skilled immigrants bring.
This country’s scientific stature has been built on the discoveries of immigrants. The potent anti-inflammatory drug Remicade (2018 US sales $5.3 billion) was developed by Dr. Jan Vilček, a native of Bratislava.
The scientific leader, Joan Massagué, of my own cancer research institution, was a Spanish immigrant who was among the first to understand the signaling behind processes such as embryonic development, tumor onset, and cancer metastasis.
The incoming head of Genentech’s Research program, computational biologist Aviv Regev, hailed from Israel.
The work of neuroscientist Dr. Huda Zoghbi (Lebanon) has led to treatments for previously untreatable Rett Syndrome and spinocerebellar ataxia.
Feng Zhang, born in China and now faculty at MIT, was central to the development of CRISPR technologies. Dr. Ankit Bharat, an immigrant from India was the surgeon who performed the double lung transplant of a Covid-19 patient in her 20s. Examples abound of immigrant scientists and the impact they’ve had in the biomedical, natural, and physical sciences, and it’s notable that of all American-based Nobel Prize winners, over 40% have been immigrants.
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Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pipelines have not been sufficient to kindle the interest of American students. While our educational system and colleges and universities need to do better at building the kind of talent we need, we have come to rely on immigrant ingenuity. Without their work, we risk both the intellectual and the economic decline of our academic scientific labs. The Trump proclamation says it is trying to mitigate American unemployment, but restrictions on skilled scientists are not going to temper the impact of Covid-19 on widespread joblessness – they’ll just wreak economic havoc on the technical and research sector.
While the current administration’s “America First” platform resonated with a wide swath of the country four years ago, in the intervening years Trump has pushed America First to mean Immigrants Last. We will all suffer if he succeeds.