Fewer Foreign-Born Technologists, Fewer Patents?

img_innovation_local.gifWhether or not to raise the congressionally mandated cap on H1-B visas for specialized workers (including internationally known fashion models, but this isn't the place to get into that that) is tricky question. It's fairly inarguable that technologists from lands abroad have been a key component in the growth of the American technology sector; Microsoft, for example, has reported that 35 percent of the patents awarded to the company  in 2008 were the product of visa or green-card holders. So tech companies love H1-Bs. But in the eyes of some politicians -- Barack Obama in his candidate days, for one -- visa holders take jobs that Americans could otherwise hold, and sometimes at a depressed pay rate.

But the debate over raising the H1-B cap seems close to moot. Miriam Jordan at the Wall Street Journal reports today that -- of the 65,000 H1-B visa slots approved for FY 2010 00 only 47,000 had been applied for by September 25. In other words, we're not even using the H1-Bs we've got. Putting that in perspective, in FY 2009, all 65,000 visas were applied for within a day. One single day. We're 211 days into the 2010 window, and you can still pretty much get an H1-B on demand.

Jordan cites a number of factors. The rising fortunes of China and India make building companies there suddenly more attractive. Some anecdotal anti-immigrant sentiment might make the U.S. a less attractive place to live and work. And then there's a provision in the stimulus bill, inserted by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that requires that any company receiving stimulus money to certify that they're only hiring under H1-B because they can't possibly find a qualified American at a decent salary to do the work.

The cap question might be tabled for now, but the question about the role of foreign-born technologists in the American economy gets only more important as their numbers dwindle. It will be particularly interesting to check H1-B numbers against the number of patent applications filed by U.S. firms three to five years from now.

--Nancy Scola

(Photo credit: blunck2)

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