Ample funding and intelligent regulation must be married with the best talent, and the U.S. is declining domestically on talent production.

The 2016 Presidential election is a rhetorical oddity not just by my short standards as a newer voter (11 years strong), but also in the context of most historical elections. Fracturing in both party primary competitions was merely a preface for what has been a truly nasty competition. The nation feels dogmatically and violently divided on almost every issue.

Come November 8th, whichever candidate is elected, I hope that a highly critical and analytical consideration will be given to the inevitable changes in our immigration policy and the effect they will have on our economy.

In particular, the U.S. Biotechnology Industry is notoriously reliant on foreign talent and labor, and in fact, much of the academic basic research in the U.S. is performed by PhD candidates from abroad. Changes to our practical and social appreciation of our talented foreign researchers can have a far-reaching impact on the future development of a key segment of the American economy.

The Biotechnology Industry: A Quick Overview

By the end of 2017, the global biotechnology industry is expected to exceed $220 billion in sales. An industry born merely a few decades back, growth has been immense with a total industrial market capitalization estimated at close to $900 billion.

The biotech industry employees ~734,000 within the United States. These employees are split between the following segments:

    • 16%: Research & Testing
    • 40%: Medical Devices & Equipment
    • 44%: Drugs & Pharmaceuticals

Biotechnology is a high-complexity industry with challenges ranging from integrative science (biology, computer science, engineering, and medicine must join together) to a highly regulated environment (companies must receive not just approval from the FDA, but ultimately receive reimbursement for treatments/therapies for Medicare/Medicaid and private insurers). Given the high-complexity, Intellectual Property (IP) protection is often paramount, and the evolving patent landscape is yet another dimension to an extremely specialized industry.

Ultimately, continuous innovation is what drives value in biotechnology. Innovation born out of education, investment in basic research, and geo-ecosystems clustered around major cities such as Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.

The biotechnology industry has already proven to be an area of high return on investment for our private and public funders. As reported in Forbes, President Obama unveiled that our decade-long investment in the Human Genome Project has already returned an astonishing $140 per dollar invested. Continued support from the NIH and thoughtfulness around proposed regulations by the FDA will be needed as we continue to stay at the front of the wave that is Precision Medicine.

U.S. Biotech Talent is Increasingly Coming from Abroad

It is no secret that there is a shortage of advanced STEM degree-holders entering the workforce. The number of U.S. born students entering advanced STEM degrees is not keeping pace with the industry. Increasingly, foreign doctoral candidates have been rising as a proportion of PhD. recipients over the past decade. This makes sense: we are sourcing the best talent from both the U.S. and abroad, and both have the opportunity to contribute to the science and the economy.

Change in the % of Foreign Doctorate Recipients Over Time
Citizenship Status 1997 1999 2001 2003 2005 2007 2009 2011
Foreign Citizens 9,788 8,892 9,213 9,480 11,518 13,548 14,111 13,799
US Citizens 16,112 15,915 15,049 14,635 14,912 16,022 19,509 20,639
Total 25,900 24,807 24,262 24,115 26,430 29,570 33,620 34,438
Percent Foreign 37.8% 35.8% 38.0% 39.3% 43.6% 45.8% 42.0% 40.1%

While bringing great talent to our PhD programs benefits the institutions and the individuals, as a nation we risk losing out: what if these individuals take their acquired knowledge back to their home countries and contribute to those economies instead of the U.S.? This is a persistent concern, but one that has been moving steadily in favor of the U.S. since the 1990s. In the past decades, 5 year staying rates have slowly increased on average towards >60% up from the low 50%’s in the mid-1990s.

Policy Decisions Should Seek to Increase Stay Rates of Foreign Students

Increasing the stay rates will require a combination of both regulatory policy and social education on the value of investing in our foreign students. Foreign student & industry contributions to major technological breakthroughs have been myriad. It is important that we have continued policy geared towards enabling the retention of talented foreign citizens.

As others have argued, it is also important to consider expanding the H-1B Program. Given that such a large proportion of our knowledge base being trained in these sciences are foreign graduate students, we need to provide a pathway for citizenship in a way that is supportive. For the 2016 filing period, there were 233,000 H-1B petitions, far above the 65,000 statutory cap. We are turning away hundreds of thousands of talented workers – sending them instead to contribute their knowledge to foreign economies.

As a final case-in-point, there are so many foreign-born leaders at the top of U.S. science, technology and biotechnology companies. We must make sure that we as a country continue to produce and foster an environment for great leaders.

Notable Foreign Scientists/Entrepreneurs

  • Albert Einstein (Physics :: Germany)
  • Sergey Brin (Google :: Russia)
  • Peter Thiel (Paypal/Facebook :: Germany)
  • Elon Musk (Tesla/SpaceX :: South Africa)
  • Rupert Mudroch (News Corp :: Australia)
  • Vinod Khosla (Sun Microsystems :: India)
  • John Farber (ICC Industries :: Romania)

International @ Phosphorus

At Phosphorus, an international, cross-functional team is essential to our ability to better understand and harness the power of the human genome. Genomics is an international science. Every country, culture, ethnicity and background has a different genetic makeup. The numbers on our team are reflective as well:

  • Full Time Employees: 9 of 28 employees are foreign-born citizens
  • Board of Directors: 66% of our Board of Directors are foreign-born citizens

The challenges in human genomics span across borders, and at Phosphorus we want to ensure that we can continue to bring on the best talent to accomplish our mission.