Dominic Lawson: More migrants please, especially the clever ones

Over half of those at the helm of start-ups in Silicon Valley have been migrants

Share

Please can we forget about the cat? However diverting it is to see a shared domestic pet become the focus of an internal Conservative Party debate between Theresa May and Ken Clarke about the way in which the Human Rights Act affects the work of immigration tribunals, it betrays the seriousness of the underlying issue.

Its true significance was accidentally revealed by George Osborne, in his own (almost ignored) speech at the same tedious event. Taking advantage of the fact that the Conservative Conference was being held in Manchester, George Osborne launched a paean of praise for Manchester University's pioneering work into graphene, a novel two-dimensional substance which seems to be the world's thinnest, strongest and most conductive material: in other words, something with awesome commercial potential.

The Chancellor singled out the two professors whose work on graphene won them a Nobel Prize last year, and declared: "These two brilliant scientists could have gone anywhere in the world to do their research, but they chose Manchester. We will fund a national research programme that will take this Nobel Prize-winning discovery from the British laboratory to the British factory floor. We're going to get Britain making things again."

The constant invocation of "British" is the stock-in-trade of Conservative Party conferences, but, as Osborne noted, the two Nobel Prize-winning scientists chose to come to this country: Professor Andre Geim and Professor Konstantin Novoselov are both Russian. And although neither has been so insensitive as to mention it in the wake of Osborne's speech, both of them had signed a public letter warning the Government that its new cap on immigration from outside the EU – a national annual total of 21,700 – will "damage our ability to recruit the brightest young talent as well as distinguished scientists into our universities and industries".

This letter, also signed by the British Nobel prize winner Sir Harry Kroto (whose parents fled Nazi-controlled Europe to settle here) complained that a blanket exemption to the cap had been bestowed only on Premier League football players: "It is a sad reflection on our priorities as a nation if we cannot afford the same recognition for elite scientists and engineers."

The Government responded by saying that it would give scientists "a significant advantage" under its new and complex points system of desirability; but that only promises to tie universities up in a form-filling bureaucratic miasma, which still contrasts embarrassingly with the rubber-stamp formality granted to applications from the £150,000-a-week public dribblers and expectorators of the so-called beautiful game. It also contrasts unfavourably with the United States, where universities are exempt from any immigration cap, in their hiring of academics and researchers.

To say that the US has gained from this arrangement over recent years would be the mother and father of understatements. Over half of those at the helm of start-ups in Silicon Valley have been migrants. These and other remarkable facts are put forward in Exceptional People: How Immigration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future by Professor Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan. The authors also point out that in 2006 foreign nationals living in the US were inventors or co-inventors in 40 per cent of all patent applications filed by the US Government.

Intel, PayPal, eBay and Yahoo were all founded by migrants, though I suppose the most striking example is Google, whose presiding genius and co-founder is the Russian-born Sergey Brin. It was his father Michael, now a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, who took the chance to leave the Soviet Union, with his family (including six-year-old Sergey) in 1979. The Brins were among an exodus of Jewish academics who left the USSR as a result of that nation's officially sanctioned but publicly unacknowledged anti-Semitism.

Michael Brin records that "no one would consider me for graduate school because I was Jewish. That was normal". He also recalls how at Moscow State University, discrimination was administered by means of entrance exams for which Jews were tested in different rooms from other applicants – which were morbidly nicknamed "gas-chambers" – and marked more harshly.

This might seem of purely historical interest, for those who study the economic reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Except that under Vladimir Putin, soon to return to the Russian Presidency, there could well be a reversion to the official prejudices of the late Soviet era – and which will lead to further flight, not especially by Jews, but by all those who seek a homeland not characterised by state-sponsored gangsterism. If you think this is an exaggeration, only observe that last week Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian television viewers that Leonid Brezhnev (who led the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982) "wasn't a minus for our country, he was a huge plus".

On this basis, we can expect many more Russian entrepreneurs and scientists to be looking for the chance to leave with their families. As a country, we would be mad to do anything to discourage them from settling here, in effect telling them to head for Silicon Valley or American campuses, rather than Cambridge or Manchester University. I should confess at this point to a personal interest: my own paternal great-grandfather came to this country from Russia around the dawn of the 20th century. Although the rest of his wider family remained in what became the Soviet Union and one in particular became an acclaimed and honoured scientist at Leningrad University, I am grateful to have been born on this side of the divide.

The freedom of thought which prospers best in countries that accept political diversity can have unexpected and delayed bonuses for the host nation – and for the world as a whole. Steve Jobs, who died last week, mourned as America's most innovative and planet-changing computer visionary, was born in San Francisco and adopted by an American family. His natural father, however, was a Syrian graduate student by the name of Abdulfattah Jandali (who now works as the vice-president of a casino business in Reno, Nevada).



It is an accident of history, of course; but had Abdulfattah Jandali not been welcome as an immigrant on the campuses of California, and as a result his son not been brought up in the part of the world most open to silicon-chip-based entrepreneurialism, then something wonderful might never have happened (and I speak disinterestedly as one who has never bought an Apple product).

Doubtless none of these arguments will persuade the government to abandon its new cap on the maximum number of non-EU immigrants who can be lawfully accepted without question as researchers and professors on British campuses; and it could be that our universities will be able to fill all their posts with outstanding candidates. But this also sends out the message to frustrated talent in Russia, China and India that they will be more welcome in the United States than they are here. From the true British patriot's point of view, that can only be bad news.



d.lawson@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss