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Immigrants Strengthen American Science


Monday, March 31, 2014

From Einstein and Oppenheimer to this year's crop of doctoral students crunching numbers at MIT -- or Stanford or Chicago or any major university -- immigrant brainpower has long been a major part of American scientific research and progress. A look at this month's discovery of 'smoking gun' evidence supporting the so-called 'Big Bang' theory underscores the significant role that non-U.S.-born scientists play in keeping American institutions at the cutting edge of research. 
 
Earlier this month, researchers reported evidence -- in the form of gravity "ripples" -- that supports the Big Bang theory of our universe's creation. According to the theory, our universe started as an infinitely small singularity (such as would occur if a black hole collapsed in on itself) that suddenly exploded outward. In the 14.3 billion years since the Big Bang, the universe has continued to expand. Thus, the theory's more simply-elegant, official moniker: cosmic inflation.
 
One of the chief authors of the inflationary theory of the universe is Russian-born physicist Andrei Linde, who moved to the U.S. and became Professor of Physics at Stanford University in 1990. Along with Alan Guth of MIT and Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University, Linde has been at the forefront of refining cosmic inflation theory since it was first proposed in 1979.
 
The team that found the breakthrough evidence were researchers working on the BICEP2 program at the South Pole. The research was led by a group of scientists from a consortium of American Institutions, including Clem Pryke, who was born in the U.K. and is a research co-leader from the University of Minnesota and Stanford University's Chao-Lin Kuo, who immigrated to the U.S. to continue his doctoral studies after completing his undergraduate work in Taiwan.
 
Marc Kamionkowski an early-universe expert at Johns Hopkins University, who was not part of the team, told The New York Times, “This is huge, as big as it gets.”
 
While the breakthrough was clearly a major accomplishment that resulted from collaboration between American institutions, much of the brainpower behind the original theory and the discovery of the supportive evidence was not U.S.-born. Such important discoveries keep American universities at the forefront of international research -- not just in hard sciences like physics, but also in the more nuanced realms of medicine, technology and economics -- but without the addition of talented immigrants to our academic pool, American research simply would not be as strong as it is.
 
Global competition for such talent is strong. Before Stanford, Linde worked with CERN in Switzerland. While his work would have been public and shared in the global scientific community, researchers like Chao-Lin Kuo, would not have had the opportunity to work directly with him on the project that ultimately bolstered Linde's theory. Implementing immigration reform and easing the bureaucracy that American universities and businesses must navigate to recruit and retain international talent would serve to keep the U.S. academically and economically strong. 
 


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