Are Immigrants Good for America? Ask the Nobel Prize Committee
Policy + Politics

Are Immigrants Good for America? Ask the Nobel Prize Committee

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David J. Thouless; F. Duncan M. Haldane; J. Michael Kosterlitz; Sir J. Fraser Stoddart; Oliver Hart; Bengt Holmström. What do these five Brits and one Finn have in common, besides their foreign ancestry? They're all 2016 Nobel Prize recipients -- and they all did their prize-winning work in the United States.

In other words, they're all immigrants who achieved great things in the U.S.

Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz all have a share in the Nobel in Physics. Thouless did his work at the University of Washington, Haldane at Princeton University and Kosterlitz at Brown University. Stoddart has a share in the Nobel in Chemistry and did his work at Northwestern University. Hart and Holmström share the Nobel in Economics and did their work at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively.

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Immigrants are natural innovators, natural envelope pushers — people one way or another not satisfied with the status quo and willing to take outsize chances to make things happen. Anyone with the chutzpah to up-and-leave his or her native land — along with his or her language, culture and friends and family — and emigrate are entrepreneurs in the broadest sense of the word, eager to try new things. The data back up this intuitive notion.

Give us your huddled masses, yearning to start new businesses

A 2012 study by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonprofit group co-founded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, found that 76 percent of patents granted to the top U.S. patent-producing universities in 2011 had an immigrant inventor. These immigrant inventors came from a total of 88 different countries.

Drilling down a bit, 79 percent of all pharmaceutical patents were invented or co-invented by a scientist born abroad. And though immigrants make up just an eighth of the U.S. population, fully a quarter of all Americans who have won a Nobel have been immigrants.

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These highly skilled and highly specialized émigrés to the U.S. are merely the most visible tip of the immigration iceberg. Obviously, not all immigrants go on to develop patents or win a Nobel, but according to the same study immigrants as a group are also more likely to start businesses than native-born Americans — twice as likely, in fact. Twenty-eight percent of all U.S. companies started in 2011 had immigrant founders, and 40 percent of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, including Kraft, Procter & Gamble, Google and eBay. The South African-born Elon Musk made his fortune as co-founder of PayPal, and has since founded Tesla Motors and SpaceX.

America is a nation that reveres innovation and entrepreneurship. And in a world that still looks to the U.S. as a generator of game-changing ideas in a host of fields — and a world in which the U.S. is less and less of a brute manufacturing force — the contribution of immigrant minds and entrepreneurial drive is worth calling out. America may be home of the brave, but maybe more importantly America is home of the brains. In no small part, we can thank immigrants for that.