Nobel Prizes Awarded to Numerous First-Generation Americans

While it has been established that immigrants have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the U.S. economy, it is important not to overlook the vast array of non-economic contributions they have made to our country when advocating for sensible immigration reform. One of the most pivotal arenas where immigrants have made their mark is in scientific disciplines. Over the last century, countless immigrants to the United States have made ingenious discoveries in a wide array of fields in science that have propelled our nation’s ascent as a global leader in medicine, tech development, and aerospace engineering, to name just a few. Earlier this month, immigrants fostered their long history of superlative scientific achievements as two of them were announced as the 2019 U.S. recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Medicine, and Physics.

The prize, which is awarded annually to international laureates in recognition of outstanding academic, cultural, and scientific advances, is considered the apex of achievement in its recognized fields. Established in 1895 by Swedish chemist, industrialist, and engineer, Alfred Nobel, the award confers a gold medal, diploma, and a sizeable monetary grant to the recipients. This year, M. Stanley Whittingham, an immigrant from the United Kingdom, and James Peebles, an immigrant from Canada, are among the U.S. honorees. Whittingham is a professor at Binghamton University, New York, and is a co-recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering work on lithium batteries and their applications. Peebles is a professor at Princeton University, New Jersey, and is receiving the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for his research into ancient radiation dating back to the birth of the universe.

Not to be outdone, three Americans were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, two of whom were immigrants. IndianAmerican, Abhijit Banerjee, and FrancoAmerican, Esther Duflo, along with Michael Kremer, were honored “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” Banerjee, born in Mumbai, and Duflo, born in Paris, both came to the U.S. as foreign national students, and eventually went on to become professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They have dedicated much of their careers to challenging assumptions in policies designed to combat poverty.

For instance, to improve education in impoverished areas, many programs have used resources to provide textbooks to students and reduce the student-teacher ratio. However, there had been little in the way of controlled trials to show how impactful such efforts really are to the students. Research by Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer, among others, found that such programs were not nearly as effective as previously assumed. Rather, controlled studies found that better ways to spend these funds to combat poverty, such as supplying deworming pills to the students, which significantly reduces the number of days missed from class.

This year’s immigrant recipients of the Nobel Prize follow a rich history of scientists born outside of the U.S. who were recognized for their remarkable accomplishments while on our soil. According to the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization focused on trade, immigration, and education, since 1901 immigrants have been awarded 35 percent of the Nobel Prizes won by Americans in Physics, Medicine, and Chemistry. That’s a total of 105 out of 302 recipients over the last 118 years. It’s also important to note that the rate of U.S. Nobel Prize winners who are immigrants increased dramatically after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 became law, allowing far more immigrants from non-European countries to enter the U.S.

As immigrants continue to fall victim to the current wave of xenophobic political rhetoric, it’s vital that the full spectrum of their contributions to our country are illuminated. And while the economic benefits they bestow are considerable, their hard work, dedication, and unmitigated brilliance in their chosen fields is just as crucial to our national well-being. The achievements of immigrants such as the scientists honored with the Nobel Prize are not only advancing our current society, but also that of generations to come. The value of such ingenuity is truly priceless. [See Immigrant Nobel Prize Winners Keep Leading the Way for America by Stuart Anderson, Forbes, 14.Oct.2019; How the 3 Nobel Winners for Economics Upended the Fight Against Poverty by Nurith Aizenman,, Goats and Soda, 15.Oct.2019.]


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