While it's unclear whether the patent application numbers indicate more foreign residents or a backlog of green card applications or both, one thing is obvious, said Ron Hira of IEEE-USA and vice-president for career activities: That's the contribution foreign-born enginneers make to the U.S. economy.
"One of the most important policy conclusions is that highly skilled immigrants play an important role in creating this intellectual property, and we want them to stay here," Hira said.
Hira said temporary visas aren't the way to accomplish this. "We should devise a policy to give them permanent residence and encourage them toward citizenship," Hira said. "The wrong way is to offer them a non-immigrant guest worker visa such as an H-1B or L-1."
Not everyone agrees with Wadhwa and the IEEE.
The Duke research doesn't add a great deal to the overall immigration dialogue, said Jessica Vaughan, senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.
The center is a nonpartisan research institute that studies the effects of immigration on U.S. society. It favors tighter immigration enforcement and lower overall immigration levels.
The Duke study "confirms what many people know instinctively: that some immigrant and foreign visitors make an enormous contributions to our economy and our society," Vaughan said. "That's why our immigration policy tries to facilitate, within the overall limits, the migration of highly skilled individuals."
The increased numbers of foreign-born residents filing patent applications may simply reflect the increased numbers who have moved here in the past decade, she added.
Duke's results do illustrate the overarching issue of globalization, said Seattle intellectual property attorney Brett Hertzberg. "I don't think its so much an immigration issue as a globalization issue," said Hertzberg. "More U.S. corporations are looking to reduce their expenses and increase profitability," he said.
This can result in outsourcing engineering development to countries such as China and India, Hertzberg said. And that in turn leads to more foreign engineers coming to the U.S. "As a natural consequence of those business contacts, we're having increased immigration from those countries to here," Hertzberg said.
That inevitably means more patents are being filed in the U.S. by foreign residents. "Is that bad for the patent world? I think the opposite is actually true," Hertzberg said.
It does, however, point to another problem in the U.S. economy, he said. When those jobs are outsourced, although it expands the scope of engineering expertise, it also it means less work for U.S. engineers.
The Duke study raises additional questions, the IEEE's Hira said. "It surprised me that the share is as large as it is. But the fact that it has grown so rapidly raises lots of questions about why that's happened," he said. "We really just don't know."
Additional data, including growth rates for specific patent application areas, would be useful, Hira said.