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

Monday 17 October 2011 15:28 BST

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.

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