Immigrants Earn Multiple Nobel Prize Awards in Tech and Science Fields

When the annual recipients of the prestigious Nobel prizes were announced earlier this month, there was one notable similarity between nearly all of the American honorees: six-out-of-the-seven of them are first-generation immigrants to the United States. (The seventh honoree is singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.) This is not an anomaly. Since 2000, immigrants have been awarded 40 percent of the Nobel prizes earned by Americans in science, technology, engineering, and math, otherwise known as the STEM fields. And while the contributions of immigrants to the highest levels of academia have had a profound impact on our nation, several of the Nobel Prize honorees have expressed concern that the “open borders” that have benefited our nation for generations are in danger of being closed.

U.S. immigration laws in the early 20th century were shamefully discriminatory and xenophobic. Immigrants trying to enter the United States were subjected to quotas based on country of origin, and entire ethnic groups were at times barred from entry. As a result, it was immensely difficult for immigrants to contribute their talent and ingenuity to academic fields. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Immigration and Nationality Act removed national origin quotas as part of immigration policy. Almost immediately, the United States began to reap the benefits of top students from around the world entering America to establish themselves in tech and science related fields; in fact, the number of immigrants who have received Nobel prizes in these fields has tripled since 1960. [See Flooding America with Nobel Prizes, by Stuart Anderson, Forbes, 16.Oct.2016.]

But despite the fact that the ingenuity of immigrants has been a substantial factor in our nation’s status as a world leader in STEM related innovations, several of this year’s Nobel Prize recipients have expressed unease about the future of our nation’s immigration policy, in part due to heated rhetoric exchanged on the topic of immigrants during this year’s presidential election. Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, a Scottish-born scientist who immigrated to the United States in 1997 and is currently a professor at Northwestern University, was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He credits our current immigration policy as “total magic in the academic world,” but is fearful of political rhetoric that has called for strict limitations on immigration and increased deportation of immigrants who are already in the country. He lamented in an interview with Public Radio International that “… the U.S. has benefited from people on the other side of ‘that wall’ coming here for centuries. Why would you want to stop it? It doesn’t make sense.” And Duncan Haldane, a Princeton University professor who immigrated to this country from Great Britain and was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, noted in an interview with Reuters that although our nation’s immigration system caused him frustration at times, it has also created a higher education system that is “second to none” and leads the world in scientific breakthroughs. [See American Immigrant Nobel Laureate: Open Borders are ‘Total Magic in the Academic World, by Michelle Mark, Business Insider, 13.Oct.2016.]

This year’s list of U.S. Nobel Prize honorees, primarily composed of immigrants who have reached the pinnacle of their respective academic fields, serves as a reminder that immigrants have only strengthened our nation’s presence on the world stage. We must not allow fear and misinformation about immigrants to irreparably damage our nation’s status as a world leader in science and technology.


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