shutterstock_32173453U.S. workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields have been important contributors to American innovation, job creation, rising incomes, and global economic competitiveness throughout the years. And not surprisingly, immigrants have played a critical role in American innovation through STEM fields and all parts of the U.S. economy. A new report by Gordon Hanson (University of California, San Diego) and Matthew Slaughter (Dartmouth) describes these important relationships between talent, economic competitiveness, and immigration in the United States. In their paper, the authors present data in support of three critical points:

First, the contribution of talent to American innovation and overall competitiveness is as important today as in the past:

“Talent – especially the talent of highly educated STEM workers – drives much of America’s innovation and economic growth. In the increasingly global economy, America’s need for talent has become even more acute. Despite the nation’s historic innovation prowess, concern is rising among leaders that our economic strength is waning.”

Second, immigration adds to the talent pool in the United States, which is as important today as it has been in the past:

“Immigration plays a critical role in helping America meet its steadily growing demand for talent – especially for highly skilled STEM workers. Immigrants have long made substantial contributions to American innovation, both at the highest levels and throughout the economy at all stages of discovering and developing new ideas. Over time, America’s reliance on talented immigrants has been rising, not falling. America attracts immigrants who achieve very high levels of education and who are strongly inclined toward training in STEM disciplines.”

Third, the supply of and need for STEM talent in the U.S. includes an opportunity for immigrants to continue to help meet that growing demand:

“Even after the Great Recession, America’s need for more talent persists, as it did for decades before. America’s demand for skilled STEM workers continues to grow – and immigrants continue to help meet this demand, both directly and more broadly through their expansive contributions to America’s innovation potential. Post-recession, unemployment in STEM occupations has been falling sharply as the STEM labor market rapidly tightens.”

Immigrants make significant contributions to innovation throughout the country, from the discovery of new ideas, research and development of new products, and patenting, to starting and leading new and innovative companies that create thousands of jobs in the U.S. As the report reiterates, immigrants founded or co-founded 25 percent of all U.S. high-tech firms between 1995 and 2005. In 2005, those new companies employed nearly half a million people and produced more than $50 billion in sales. Beyond the national level, cities and regions within the U.S. that attract greater numbers of skilled immigrants tend to be more successful at innovation. Furthermore, innovation-intensive metropolitan areas tend to have higher rates of patenting, lower unemployment rates, and higher demand for high-skilled workers since patenting growth is correlated with job growth, population growth, and increases in educational attainment.

America’s past innovation grew in part from a robust education system and an environment that allowed for the world’s most talented – native- and foreign-born alike – to thrive. Based on the evidence of the importance of immigrants to American innovation, we must ensure that comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 allows immigrants to contribute their talent and skill here in the U.S. Furthermore, we must  guarantee that our education system cultivates a long-term future workforce of talented individuals with the STEM expertise necessary to allow the U.S. to continue to be an innovation leader in our global innovation economy.