Microsoft chairman Bill Gates got caught up in a media circus last week thanks to a seeming flip-flop over his support for state legislation that would ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. But Gates' clash with right-wing religionistas was just a sideshow and, unfortunately, the spotlight of national media attention had already moved to the next knee-jerk nonissue of the moment just as Bill had something really important to say.
Speaking later in the week before a panel at the Library of Congress in Washington, Gates slammed the federal government's strict limits on temporary visas for technology workers and said the system should be scrapped entirely. "The theory behind the H-1B [visa] that too many smart people are coming that's questionable," Gates told the panel. "It's very dangerous. You can get this idea that the world is very scary; let's cut back on travel . . . let's cut back on visas."
The knowledge economy is taking root around the world, growing from the seeds of science, technology, innovation and new business opportunities and fueled by smart people. But in the United States, a reactionary president is sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt about the world we live in, mixed with his own peculiar brand of social fertilizer.
What scares Bill Gates should scare us all.
Microsoft, like all global technology powerhouses, depends upon a constant influx of educated, talented people to grow and expand its business. Industry leaders like Gates and Intel's Andy Grove and Craig Barrett have witnessed the globalization of the technology revolution and seen firsthand the extent to which countries like India, China, South Korea and other rising Asian giants are furiously investing in their own knowledge-based economies.
They also see that capital, which has no borders and is utterly international, is aggressively pursuing bright technical minds and brilliant business ideas in far-off technology centers like Hyderabad and Bangalore, Beijing, Taiwan and Europe.
While we as a nation pursue the second coming of isolationism, a misguided preemptive military-strike policy and a Monkey Trial educational agenda, the rest of the world is getting on with globalization. India and China are invigorating their technology universities, building science and technology centers, and wooing their own nationals (many in possession of H-1B visas) back home with the lure of high-caliber technology jobs and fast-growing businesses.
Tsinghua University in Beijing is a good example. It's in the midst of a major makeover as the Chinese government makes good on its aspiration to create a university to match its global ambitions and to produce graduates who will compete in its market economy. Rising alongside the university is an expanding Tsinghua Science Park, a new jewel in the Zhongguancan Science and Technology Zone.
Tech zones like these are springing up all over Asia today, serving as focal points for incubating startups, as cultivation bases for talent and innovation, and as cooperative centers to support education, research, technology development and entrepreneurship.
It's time for the U.S. government to wake up to these new realities and their impact on the tech industry here. Our leaders need to understand that security doesn't just mean chasing terrorists down foxholes; that sealing our borders and choking off immigration are tantamount to eliminating our economic oxygen.
Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman also warned the Library of Congress panel of increased competition from abroad. She joined Gates in blasting the federal government's aggressive denial of visas to foreign students after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"Students are not coming in the numbers they used to," Tilghman said, a claim supported by data from the Institute of International Education. It reports that the number of foreign students dropped in 2003 for the first time in more than 30 years, and attributes the decline to increased competition from foreign universities as well as far stricter U.S. visa rules.
A report published last year by the National Science Foundation said pretty much the same thing. The NSF report warned that the United States risks losing the foreign scientists it relies on to fill technology jobs because of unclear immigration demands since 9/11 and because more countries are developing programs to keep their highly educated citizens at home.
As a nation, we still lag behind other countries in the number of students majoring in science and engineering at the college and university level. Indeed, a report last week from the think tank Computing Research Associates said that the percentage of incoming undergraduates indicating they would major in computer science declined by more than 60 percent between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2004, and is now 70 percent lower than it was during its peak in the early 1980s.
In today's technology-based knowledge economy, the winners will be those companies and those countries that attract the smartest people on the planet and put them to work creating new technology and wealth by building robust, global enterprises. The rest of the world, especially India and China whose immigrants helped to fuel Silicon Valley's past success have figured this out.
Gates wants to scrap the H-1B visas, or at the very least "get rid of the H-1B caps." Intel's Barrett would go a step further, having once said that "we should staple a visa to the diploma" of every immigrant who graduates from a U.S. technical university.
With more and more foreign-born technical and business talent hearing the siren song of opportunity in Bangalore, Beijing and other global technology meccas, both moves might be too little, too late.
By Richard Wallace, editorial director of CMP Media LLC's Electronics Group