Opening the Golden Door
The talent and tenacity of immigrants can help drive the life sciences industry into the future, if we have the will and the wisdom to encourage it.
By Mark Rus, Group VP and Head of Neuroscience at Shire, in Boston. He also serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Waltham, Mass., and numerous other local philanthropic organizations.
My Hungarian mother and Romanian father escaped from the Eastern Bloc together in 1969 hiding on a bus. They spent a year in Austria in a transition camp, took English classes, then got a visa to emigrate to Canada. When they arrived at the airport in Montreal, they had about $10 in their pockets – and they spent it all at the airport bar, just, my father joked, “So that we when we leave the airport and enter Canada we can tell everyone we came here with nothing!” Like many immigrants they worked around the clock to make a better life for themselves and their children, and like many immigrants they succeeded.
So immigration is an issue that goes beyond the newspapers for me. And I’m an immigrant myself, having moved (with my American wife) from Canada to Europe to the Boston area. I may not be an American citizen, at least not yet, but my children are, and we are fortunate and appreciative to be living in this great country, built by talented and hardworking people from here and around the world, who all come together and become Americans.
All that said, why are you reading about immigration in a pharma trade publication? You were probably expecting to hear about the next-next biggest launch or the future of neuroscience. What does immigration policy and process matter to pharma?
Nearly two-thirds of all Nobel Prizes awarded for U.S.-based research have gone to immigrants.
Roughly one-third of the founders of all venture-backed companies and 40 percent of the founders of Silicon Valley high-tech startups are immigrants.
More than 40 percent of the companies that make up the current Fortune 500 were founded by a first- or second-generation immigrant.
More than a third of “innovators” in the United States as defined by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation – individuals who have won national awards for inventions; filed for patents in IT, life sciences, or materials sciences; or filed for patents for large advanced-technology companies – are foreign-born.
Almost 30 percent of all college-educated workers in science and engineering occupations in the United States are foreign-born.
And where I live, the biotech hub of Boston, 27 percent of all workers ages 25 to 64 are immigrants. By industry, 34 percent of workers in computers, engineering, and science; 43 percent in healthcare support; and 31 percent of doctors, dentists, and pharmacists in the Boston area are immigrants. So says a recent study by American Community Survey, quoted in the Boston Globe.
Get the idea?
America justly prides itself on having some of the hardest-working, most resilient, and most talented workers and people in the world. When you add immigrant power to this, it becomes a truly overwhelming economic force. Immigrants are tenacious. Immigrants are new ideas. Immigrants are resilience. And most importantly, immigrants are growth and provide fuel for our collective future.
And on what does our own industry – the life sciences – depend? Tenacity, new ideas, resilience, growth.
And who depends on our industry, on the business of healthcare? Pretty much everyone, including all of those we love and care about the most, at one point or another.
Which is why immigrants and immigration should, in my opinion, be more important for leaders in the healthcare and bioscience fields nationally. Of course a strong regulatory framework, evolved pricing models across the entire supply chain, and innovative R&D are critical. But immigration is often entirely missing from the national life sciences conversation. I believe that it can and must become a part of that conversation. Not based on any humanitarian or security-based/political argument; those are separate discussions for a separate article. Immigration must become a part of the national life sciences conversation because of the very practical reality that we need as many of the very best, the most driven, the most innovative people with the best ideas we can find to provide patients with the extraordinary level of care that we’re always promising.
Look, I fully support the existing consensus that increasing STEM education and diversity in our C-level leadership teams both play critical roles in the future of our industry. I have three children under the age of 5, and so I know part of the solution is continuously investing for the long term and improving our school systems to support STEM in general, and for young girls like my daughter in particular. Building more diverse points of view on boards is also crucial. But, bottom line, immigration deserves a seat at that table as well. Often, those very best, most driven, most innovative people that we need are quite often immigrants or the children of immigrants. Or, put another way, the innovative life science company/sector that supports immigrants’ needs and advocates on their behalf, that lets them loose to think and do and create, will in my opinion out-produce and out-earn the innovative pharma company that doesn’t do those things, over the long term.
So if part of your job description is to get more innovative medicines invented, approved, or commercialized, and increase the odds that we’ll find more cures for more diseases, immigration policy had best be on your agenda, or you could already be behind.
And let me be clear. I am not just referring to the immigration of the highly trained and specialized talent, either. Look around your company, your neighborhood, the businesses you patronize. Who are the food service employees, the construction workers, the personal care and health care support providers? Who are the people doing backbreaking and exhausting labor for very little money? To a striking degree, they are immigrants. And this isn’t just my imagination; according to the same American Community Survey study quoted above, nearly two in three maids and janitors, six in 10 cooks, more than four in 10 health and child care support staff, and nearly four in 10 construction workers in the Boston area are immigrants. I see it around my offices, in Waltham, where the local Boys and Girls Club does an amazing job supporting more than 2,000 members between the ages of 6 and 17, of which well over half speak English as a second language and/or are first- or second-generation immigrants, with parents who are often working more than one job.
Given the initial financial circumstances most immigrants face – that my parents faced – sometimes all they can do is work desperately hard so that their children can enjoy the full fruits of the American opportunity.
And why does that matter to the pharmaceutical industry?
Remember how I mentioned that more than 40 percent of the Fortune 500 were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants? Well, drilling down into that number a bit, this means not only that 19 percent of the Fortune 500 were founded by first-generation immigrants, but that 25 percent were founded by second-generation immigrants, the children of the people who first came to America.
Or, put another way, the child of the woman who cleans your office every night might just discover the drug that saves your life in 30 years.
It is our task as an industry to improve the quality of care for patients around the world at the fastest possible rate, day after day and year after year. That is how pharma companies earn the right to continue to exist and thrive. If we are to achieve that task, we must not limit ourselves to being advocates for our patients or our regulatory or R&D framework, or even ourselves. Patient advocacy will always and should always come first. But we must also be advocates for the people who will help us achieve that task tomorrow, and next year, and in five years, and in 30 years. Those people might be nearby, or they might be thousands of miles away, in an obscure village in a developing country. They might be well-educated and motivated and aiming for a work visa to the United States, or they might be struggling to escape the worst kind of poverty and despair, or they might not even have been born yet. But wherever they are, it is past time for us as an industry to speak out loud for those people, those immigrants who – combined with the powerful engine of American innovation and ingenuity – will drive us to a healthier future if we let them. Not because it’s the right thing to do – even though it might be – but because it’s the smart thing to do. Sometimes right and smart, as it happens, may just be the same.
How to make a difference
In every part of the United States organizations can be found that support and advocate for the immigrant community. In my area one of those organizations is the International Institute of New England (iine.org), a non-profit founded in 1918 that provides humanitarian relief, education, skills training, job placement, family reunification and pathways to citizenship to 2,000 immigrants and refugees each year in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. IINE is the oldest and second-largest resettlement agency in our region and has the largest Central American family reunification program in Greater Boston. More than 500 refugees and immigrants enroll in IINE’s education programs annually, and each year the organization connects hundreds of new Americans to jobs in New England companies.
But organizations like IINE can only survive and thrive with the active support and philanthropy of the residents and leaders of the communities in which they work, directed both towards the organizations themselves and the immigrant populations those organizations serve. So, if you want to make a difference, seek out the immigrant support organizations in your area and offer them whatever help you can – your time, your experience, your professional network, your and your company’s human and financial resources. And even beyond that, we can do so much more. Consider working with immigrant-owned businesses as vendors at your company. Encourage your employees to volunteer and make outreach to the immigrant community a part of your corporate conversation and culture. We as leaders of the life sciences industry have so many ways to support immigrant communities and innovators, and the more we do it the more we’ll be investing in our own success. But we must act.