I’ve traveled the world because of science.
My undergraduate and doctoral studies were in Boston. I’ve done stem cell research in Singapore. I worked in Belgium to learn about camelid antibodies, studied chemistry in England, and given talks around the world.
This type of freedom to study and work across countries made it possible for me to learn from the best, expanded my scientific horizons, and instilled in me a deep passion to make the world a better place. These experiences also empowered me with the skills and conviction needed to enter the biopharma world and start Olaris, a precision medicine company that identifies biomarkers of response to optimize outcomes and improve health.
Proposals by the federal government to make it difficult for people of other countries to have these experiences here in the U.S. will, I believe, hurt the biopharmaceutical industry.
In June, Presidential Proclamation 10051 suspended immigration into the United States for anyone holding H-1B, J-1, and L visas, and suspended granting new ones. Most worrisome for the pharmaceutical industry is the ban on H-1B visas, because it will limit, and in some instances entirely prevent, biopharma companies from recruiting the specialized talent they need.
According to the proclamation, the suspension and limitation are aimed at ensuring “that the presence in the United States of H-1B nonimmigrants does not disadvantage United States workers.” The proclamation ends on Dec. 31, at which point the limitations will cease or the administration may extend them as it sees fit.
In August, the president issued an executive order that prevents federal agencies from hiring employees that would “displace American workers.” This would require federal employers to prove that a new employee requiring an H-1B visa would not be replacing an American worker. Federal agencies like the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Food and Drug Administration have multiple million- to billion-dollar research budgets and typically employ hundreds of talented scientists, including U.S. citizens and, at least until now, many through H-1B sponsorship. Federal funded research is an essential part of the science and innovation ecosystem and in many ways acts as a feeder to biopharma for ideas, tools, and people. So, while this may not seem to directly hurt biopharma immediately, it will cut off important pipelines.
And in September, the Department of Homeland Security submitted to the Office of Management and Budget a new H-1B regulation for final review that further restricts the definition of “specialty occupation” and makes it more difficult for visa holders who work primarily outside of the main office. For biopharma companies this could have dual repercussions. It could limit staff being sent out to the field, such as hospitals, manufacturing sites, and the like. It could also limit the staffing of many of service providers, such as IT, maintenance, sanitation, and health and safety specialists who are engaged to work in biopharma facilities. This new regulation is designated as an “interim final rule,” meaning it will go into effect immediately without public input.
The impact of H-1B visa limitations on U.S. biopharma
Science is global work, and the biopharma industry is a global business. Biopharma companies need to have the ability to hire the most qualified candidate for a particular job regardless of where that person was born and raised.
The biggest biopharma companies, such as Novartis, Sanofi, Pfizer, Amgen, and others, hire many talented workers via H-1B sponsorship to develop therapies. So do small companies like mine: Two of our 12 employees have H-1B visas.
A recent commentary on U.S. immigration policies in the journal Cell showed that immigrants were drivers to many breakthrough therapies such as Avastin, which helps individuals with molecular degeneration see better; Remicade, which makes it easier for rheumatoid arthritis patients to walk; CAR-T cell therapies that can bring long-term remission to many cancer patients; and more.
Even our hope for a Covid-19 vaccine can be tied to the work of immigrants: The founders of Moderna, one of the forerunners in vaccine development, include Derrick Rossi, a Canadian who originally came to Stanford for a postdoctoral fellowship on an H-1B visa, and Noubar Afeyan, who was an international Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s CEO, was once an international student at Minnesota and at Harvard Business School.
If we want more innovation — and we need it — we can’t limit the talent pool.
Covid-19 has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S alone, put millions of Americans out of work, and is crushing local economies. I understand the desire to boost employment for Americans. Yet the logic that limiting H-1B visas will let more American citizens get jobs doesn’t make sense for biopharma companies because there aren’t enough Americans trained at the highest levels of science to fill the existing job openings.
American universities are training the best and the brightest in the sciences, and the majority of those trainees are foreigners. The National Foundation for American Policy reported in 2017 that 79% of students in computer science, 57% in chemical engineering, and 56% in pharmaceutical sciences at U.S. institutions were international students. If our federal government wants citizens to be more competitive for today’s biopharma jobs, it must do more to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and encourage more youths to pursue it.
Many international students who train in the U.S. want to stay here, rent or buy homes, dine at restaurants, shop at local stores, participate in our economy, become active members of the community, and even pay taxes, all while contributing to scientific discoveries with the potential to transform society — or at least they used to. If visas become limited and they can’t find jobs, they will seek biopharma jobs elsewhere.
If the U.S. continues on its current H-1B path, biopharma companies who cannot hire the workers they need will be faced with a few choices: Establish new hubs abroad or move main offices to other countries, outsource the work when possible to service providers in other countries, or decide against pursuing the work altogether. None of these choices seem nearly as good for the companies, or the U.S. economy, as bringing on additional full-time workers. Denying H-1B visas is bad economics and bad for science.
The biopharma industry is an essential part of the U.S economy and a key player in addressing the Covid-19 crisis. We need representatives who will craft legislation that will bolster, not hinder, biopharma’s efforts. More than ever we need the best science done by the best scientists, and that knows no boundaries.
Elizabeth O’Day is the founder and CEO of Massachusetts-based Olaris. This essay was adapted from a longer version that was originally published on the Olaris website.