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Revitalising US innovation through immigration policy reform

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President Joe Biden at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology in Syracuse, New York on Thursday, 25 April 2024. (Photo: Reuters/Daniel DeLoach/Utica Observer-Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK)

In Brief

In the new era of US-China technological competition, relying on technological controls will not guarantee victory. The United States' focus on restricting Chinese talent could hinder its leadership in science and technology and its ability to compete in the global technology sector. The country needs to reform its immigration policies to promote innovation and attract international talent, especially from China. It should not allow national security concerns to compromise its greatest strength for innovation – the ability to attract global talent.

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Amid increasing scrutiny of Chinese talent, China’s Embassy in the United States has accused the latter of harassing multiple Chinese students, holding valid US visas. This occurs as Congress struggles with a border crisis, with Senate Republicans blocking a previous bipartisan deal to fund border security measures within the foreign aid bill for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel.

In this era of US–China strategic competition, the winner will be determined by who makes more breakthroughs in emerging technologies. Despite US restrictions aimed at curbing the growth of China’s technology sector, China’s scientific achievements continue to grow rapidly.

The United States must reform its immigration policy to prioritise innovation. For the United States to win this long-term competition in science and technology, it must attract the smartest and brightest from around the world. It risks forfeiting potentially valuable contributions from highly skilled immigrants if more obstacles are imposed upon them.

On 7 October 2023, the Department of Commerce imposed further export controls on companies selling semiconductor chips to China. The Dutch government followed US measures and restricted the export of deep ultraviolet lithography machines required for manufacturing semiconductors below seven nanometres. Yet, according to semiconductor company ASML’s former CEO Peter Wennink, ‘if they cannot get those machines, they will develop them themselves’. Despite the measures, Huawei is reportedly planning to develop five nanometre-class semiconductors, having already successfully produced seven nanometre chips.

Efforts to curb exports of technology may slow China’s advancements, but the United States will lose the technology race if it fails to boost domestic research and innovation.

In a significant stride for Chinese academia, the quality and quantity of scientific publications from China have surpassed those from the United States. Based on a report from Japan’s Science and Technology Ministry, more than 26 per cent of the top 10 per cent of most cited papers come from China, compared to 21 per cent from the United States. One contributor to this rise was the influx of returning Chinese researchers — over one-fifth of high-impact publications from China were authored by a researcher trained in a Five Eyes country.

Compared to China’s active talent recruitment, US policies like the China Initiative — intended to prevent intellectual property theft — have stoked fear among US-based scientists of Chinese descent. Despite the initiative’s termination following an investigation by the US Department of Justice, the outflow of Chinese scientists from the United States continues to accelerate. In 2021, more than 1400 researchers shifted research activity from the United States to China. Despite widespread anxiety, most researchers of Chinese descent express eagerness to support US technological leadership.

This exodus of Chinese talent contributes to Beijing’s drive for technology and weakens the United States’ ability to innovate. Blocking 1000 foreign doctoral students from US universities is estimated to damage the US economy by over 200 billion dollars. The rising scrutiny of US–China research collaborations has also led to a significant decline in productivity for many US laboratories.

China has contributed the highest number of scientists to the United States. In Artificial Intelligence, nearly 40 per cent of researchers at US institutions come from China.

Blunt measures targeting Chinese researchers have been ineffective in containing China’s science and technology growth. The United States must safeguard intellectual property without further eroding the competitiveness of the US innovation ecosystem and compromising its ability to attract global talent.

With the 2024 US election approaching, support for more restrictive measures on Chinese talent cannot be ruled out. Ex-officials inside the Donald Trump administration have advocated for a complete ban of Chinese students in the past. A future administration could also adopt Florida’s law of barring Chinese researchers from employment at public universities.

These kinds of restrictions prevent innocent researchers from contributing to US academia. Rather than a blanket ban, policymakers should manage national security concerns on a case-by-case basis. This could include strengthening security background checks for national security-sensitive research.

While the United States grapples with balancing national security and openness, some US allies are taking advantage of the situation by recruiting Chinese scholars who are wary of US restrictions. For example, Canada poached high-skilled workers from the United States by creating new visas targeting holders of US specialty occupation visas.

While most Chinese researchers stay in the United States, many are unable to do so due to the limited number of visas issued annually. Despite increasing annual US speciality occupation visa registrations, only 20,000 advanced degree beneficiaries are exempted from the application cap each year. Comparatively, the unauthorised crossing of migrants at the southern border in December 2023 totalled nearly 250,000. The United States should welcome high-skilled workers by increasing the cap of specialty occupation visas for advanced STEM degree holders, especially those educated in US institutions.

Restricting access to talented Chinese scientists and students could hinder the US’ talent pool, innovation economy and technological leadership. Questioning the loyalty of scientists of Chinese descent will not stop technological breakthroughs from China but may drive it. The United States can maintain its edge by welcoming the brightest scientists and students from China.

Philip Hou is President of Peace for Taiwan, a US-based nonprofit focused on Taiwan-related policy research.

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