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The US Needs a Million Talents Program to Retain Technology Leadership – Foreign Policy

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Argument: The U.S. Needs a Million Talents Program to Retain Technology Leadership The U.S. Needs a Million Talents Program t… | View Comments ()
What is the single most significant step the United States can take to sustain the technological predominance it has enjoyed since World War II? The answer should be obvious: to actively recruit the most talented minds in the world and welcome them into a society where they have the opportunity to realize their dreams. From physicist Albert Einstein and the other European scientists who helped the United States win World War II and land on the moon to the founders of Intel, Google, eBay, Uber, and the many technology companies that have powered economic growth, smart and ambitious immigrants have been the country’s secret sauce.
To sustain the United States’ technology leadership in the face of China’s formidable economic and military challenge, U.S. President Joe Biden should launch an urgent drive to recruit and retain 1 million tech superstars from around the world by the end of his first term in office.
It’s not just a matter of enticing new immigrants but of retaining bright minds already in the country. In 2009, a Turkish graduate of the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Erdal Arikan, published a paper that solved a fundamental problem in information theory, allowing for much faster and more accurate data transfers. Unable to get an academic appointment or funding to work on this seemingly esoteric problem in the United States, he returned to his home country. As a foreign citizen, he would have had to find a U.S. employer interested in his project to be able to stay.
New U.S. citizens wave American flags at a naturalization ceremony, welcoming more than 7,200 immigrants from over 100 countries, in Los Angeles on March 20, 2018.Mario Tama/Getty Images
What is the single most significant step the United States can take to sustain the technological predominance it has enjoyed since World War II? The answer should be obvious: to actively recruit the most talented minds in the world and welcome them into a society where they have the opportunity to realize their dreams. From physicist Albert Einstein and the other European scientists who helped the United States win World War II and land on the moon to the founders of Intel, Google, eBay, Uber, and the many technology companies that have powered economic growth, smart and ambitious immigrants have been the country’s secret sauce.
To sustain the United States’ technology leadership in the face of China’s formidable economic and military challenge, U.S. President Joe Biden should launch an urgent drive to recruit and retain 1 million tech superstars from around the world by the end of his first term in office.
It’s not just a matter of enticing new immigrants but of retaining bright minds already in the country. In 2009, a Turkish graduate of the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Erdal Arikan, published a paper that solved a fundamental problem in information theory, allowing for much faster and more accurate data transfers. Unable to get an academic appointment or funding to work on this seemingly esoteric problem in the United States, he returned to his home country. As a foreign citizen, he would have had to find a U.S. employer interested in his project to be able to stay.
Back in Turkey, Arikan turned to China. It turned out that Arikan’s insight was the breakthrough needed to leap from 4G telecommunications networks to much faster 5G mobile internet services. Four years later, China’s national telecommunications champion, Huawei, was using Arikan’s discovery to invent some of the first 5G technologies. Today, Huawei holds over two-thirds of the patents related to Arikan’s solution—10 times more than its nearest competitor. And while Huawei has produced one-third of the 5G infrastructure now operating around the world, the United States does not have a single major company competing in this race. Had the United States been able to retain Arikan—simply by allowing him to stay in the country instead of making his visa contingent on immediately finding a sponsor for his work—this history might well have been different.
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Similar stories are far too common. The founders of China’s leading companies in semiconductors, smartphones, and app-based deliveries—the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, Xiaomi, and Meituan—were all educated at U.S. universities.
As we all know, today’s globalized world allows talented individuals to vote with their feet and pursue their ambitions wherever they choose. With a population four times larger than the United States’, China has a much bigger pool of home-grown talent. But in a world where English has become the international language and as a country that takes pride in being a nation of immigrants, the United States has the great advantage of being able to attract the world’s most talented technical minds.
To leverage the United States’ greatest advantage, Biden should immediately announce a commitment to recruit 1 million of the world’s most technically talented individuals by the end of his first term in January 2025. To this end, the U.S. Congress should streamline the country’s immigration rules and establish programs to recruit and retain established tech superstars and the world’s best students researching advanced technologies. And if Congress will not act, then Biden should use his ample executive authority to create a million talents program and promote the United States’ leadership in the technology of the future.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy at the White House in Washington on Feb. 24, 2021.Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images
CIA director William Burns has identified the technology race as the “main arena for competition and rivalry” with China. So has Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who said last year that “technological innovation has become the main battleground of the global playing field, and competition for tech dominance will grow unprecedentedly fierce.” Whoever wins the race for tech talent will develop breakthrough technologies that will deliver decisive economic and military advantages.
A December 2021 report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center on the “Great Tech Rivalry” (which one of us co-authored) finds that in the technology Olympics, China—which was so far behind at the beginning of the millennium that the United States could not find it in its rearview mirror—has sped ahead in many arenas, including green technology, 5G telecommunication, facial recognition, voice recognition, and fintech. The United States still has significant advantages in semiconductor design, biotechnology, aerospace technology, and quantum sensing.
China has a significant edge in its education pipeline, producing four times more bachelor’s students and two times more graduate and Ph.D. students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) than the United States each year. By contrast, as the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence reported, the number of U.S.-born students participating in artificial intelligence (AI) doctoral programs has not increased since 1990. As part of its effort to close the gap with China, the United States should double spending on STEM education and employment programs at home to support Americans who have the ability to become next-generation inventors and entrepreneurs.
China’s great weakness is its spectacular inability to attract talent from other countries. While the United States can recruit from all 7.9 billion people on Earth, China has essentially limited itself to its own population of 1.4 billion people. China naturalizes fewer than 100 citizens each year, while the United States naturalizes nearly 1 million people annually. Barriers to China competing in this arena include an insular culture, engrained habits of being unwelcoming to foreigners, and a difficult-to-learn language spoken by few people outside of China. Although the Chinese government recognizes that it has serious talent shortages—for example, it has 1.7 million fewer algorithmic engineers and 300,000 fewer semiconductor specialists than the market demands—it has been unable to overcome the obstacles to recruiting people who are not Chinese.
Since 2000, half of all U.S. unicorns—start-ups valued at $1 billion or more—have been founded or co-founded by immigrants. The flow of talent is essentially a one-way street: The United States has 15 times as many immigrant inventors as there are American inventors living abroad. Although Britain, Canada, and Germany are by no means as insular as China, they all have more inventors emigrating than settling in their countries.
German-born physicist Albert Einstein; his secretary, Helen Dukas (left), and his daughter Margaret Einstein take the oath of U.S. citizenship in 1940. American Stock/Getty Images
It’s time for the United States to poach with purpose. To start, Washington should grant an additional 250,000 green cards each year. The current backlog of green cards—which entitle their holders to permanent residency and unrestricted work—is well over 1 million for high-skilled immigrants and is projected to grow to nearly 2.5 million by 2030. Right now, the U.S. government is hopelessly behind, approving two applications for every green card it actually issues. The United States also requires that no more than 7 percent of employment- and family-based green cards be issued to citizens from any single country, disadvantaging scientists and engineers from India and China. Congress should eliminate this cap and create new green card categories for experts in frontier technologies.
Another factor holding the United States back is its failure to digitize its immigration system, making it one of the few developed countries that relies almost entirely on paper forms in its immigration procedures. The green card process, which takes an average of six years, includes lengthy applications for labor certification, employment authorization, and permanent residency. More than 300,000 green cards have been lost due to bureaucratic error alone. Biden has the authority to order the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to recoup these green cards, and he should exercise it.
Next, the United States should recruit more geniuses. Granting 100,000 additional visas each year to extraordinary tech talents would go a long way toward strengthening the U.S. technology workforce. Admissions criteria for employment-based (EB) visas—such as EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3 visas—reflect history, not an urgent purpose. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) should adjust its criteria for these visas so that technology researchers and entrepreneurs qualify based on their uniquely important and hard-to-obtain expertise. Right now, only physical therapists and nurses are able to bypass a yearslong recruitment process due to labor shortages in those fields. Adding AI professionals and semiconductor engineers to this list would jump-start the careers of thousands of future entrepreneurs.
To his credit, Biden has made a good start on this agenda. In January, he used an executive action to broaden the scientific fields that can qualify for an O-1 visa for extraordinary talents. But there is still much more to be done. He can, for example, direct the Labor Department and other agencies to make the recruitment of STEM talent a top priority to outcompete China.
Regrettably, the White House has not rolled back the Trump administration’s rules aimed at slashing legal immigration to the United States. As a result, the standard for what qualifies as a “specialized job” for work visa purposes is extremely restrictive, with the government routinely denying visa applications for graduates in computer science on the grounds that they do not possess unique knowledge. This prevents companies from transferring their overseas workers to the United States using L-1 intracompany transfer visas or hiring foreign talent with H-1B work visas. The Biden administration should adopt new regulations that recognize that tech jobs are highly specialized and key to the country’s national security.
The United States can also boost retention of tech talent by granting immediate permanent residency to every foreign-born doctoral graduate in the STEM subjects. The majority of recent graduates from AI Ph.D. programs in the United States who left the country have cited the cumbersome immigration process as a critical factor in their decision to leave. Congress should also increase the capacity of immigration bureaucracy by doubling the budget of the USCIS and increasing funding for other federal agencies, such as the State Department, that play a significant role in the visa approval process. The USCIS has suffered significant budget shortfalls, resulting in a 2021 plea to Congress for a billion-dollar bailout.
Although the U.S. government played a key role in attracting and welcoming scientists like Einstein in the years preceding World War II and others who contributed to U.S. defense during the Cold War, in recent decades, it has left this job to private companies and universities. Advanced technology companies—including Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft, and many others—are now the drivers in recruiting superstars. In the AI race, it is estimated that half of the top 100 recognized geniuses advancing the frontier already work for top technology companies in the United States. Google’s acquisition of DeepMind, the company that built the first AI machine capable of beating the world champion in Go, is a case in point. To become recognized as pillars of a million talents program, major U.S. technology companies should be challenged to double their recruitment of foreign talent over the next two years with the promise of direct support from the federal government.
In the past decade, when members of Congress have thought of U.S. tech champions, they most often focus on their transmission of disinformation or violations of privacy. Although these are important issues that deserve attention, they should be considered in context. Care must be taken to find ways to address these concerns without hindering large companies’ roles as talent magnets.
America’s greatness has been powered not only by homegrown talent but by successive generations of immigrants. People from every part of the Earth have left their native countries to join Team USA. A million talents program could sustain this source of strength for what will, in the decades ahead, be the fiercest technology rivalry the world has ever seen.

Graham Allison is a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was the founding dean. He is a former U.S. assistant defense secretary and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Twitter: @GrahamTAllison
Eric Schmidt is a former CEO and executive chairman of Google, a former executive chairman of Alphabet, and co-author—with Henry Kissinger and Daniel Huttenlocher—of The Age of AI: And Our Human Future.
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