Last Tuesday was a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation in the House of Representatives. Republicans and Democrats voted 389 to 15 to allow more immigrants with math and science skills to enter America. The Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act, awaiting Senate passage, tweaks immigration laws that have limited employment Green Cards to 140,000 annually with 7% allotted per country. It’s supported by many interest groups from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to pro-immigration advocacy organizations, as it also doubles family-based Green Cards.
The bill serves as an economic recovery tool. American businesses can tap into more highly-skilled labor pools otherwise demand will move overseas to nations like China and India. Those countries will gobble up the Green Cards because they mass produce engineers and scientists. The USA does not. Americans lag in math and science. Among 29 wealthy nations, America was ranked 27th in the number of college students with degrees in engineering and science. The solution is tough because the problem is formidable. There are different groups involved such as children and teens, college students and the workforce. Time is also a factor, as each group needs a period for development.
With the Republican field minus the Herman Cain distraction, the candidates should focus on the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF, an independent agency, is responsible for promoting science to help America’s health, prosperity, welfare and national defense. By the looks of the recent House bill, the NSF’s effectiveness is questionable. Their most recent analysis, posted on the agency website, about immigrant engineers and scientists dates back to the Clinton administration. For an institution that’s supposed to be detail-oriented, the NSF doesn’t seem so.
They don’t have urgency because they’re too independent. The courts should be free of politics, not bureaucracies since presidents are held accountable through elections. There are other red flags with the NSF. First, their grants budget has been reduced from $8.2B to $6.1B between 2009 and 2011. College students, one of the groups that need math and science reorientation, will suffer because 74% of the 2010 funding went to academia. Second, NSF’s 2010 performance of building new research facilities was barely passing, as they completed 60% of their goal. You can’t innovate if the facilities aren’t in place to experiment.
The NSF, created at the start of the Cold War, is due for an overhaul. It should be reorganized into the executive branch, as a cabinet-level agency, to narrow the math and science gap. Its counterpart in the medical field, for example, the National Institutes of Health resides within the Department of Health and Human Services. By making the president responsible for the NSF, he can put the priority of math and science directly into practice.
As the semester winds down in schools and universities, the candidates should spend the holidays drawing up plans to make America competitive again.