High-Skilled Immigration

The Talent Scout State

How the U.S. can proactively recruit high-potential immigrants
May 1st 2024

America is missing out on emerging talent 

The success of American science depends on our ability to draw on the world’s talent, integrating them into the world’s best scientific institutions. A U.S. superpower has long been that more of the world’s globally mobile, high-skilled people come here than to any other country.

But while our immigration system already has numerous pathways for successful accomplished people to come, it does not consistently identify and attract young people with high potential. Instead, our immigration system is designed to attract a specific set of immigrants: successful people well into their careers, with a demonstrated track record of achievement. We should allow foreign-born scientists and researchers to do their pioneering work here in the United States, instead of welcoming them only after they have been recognized for their achievements abroad.

As other countries begin to treat the competition for talent seriously, both allies and competitors have begun to roll out migration programs explicitly aimed at recruiting high-potential talent. These programs are already bearing fruit: talented migrants increasingly choose to move to other countries. For example, OECD data shows that the U.S. has become a less attractive destination for STEM international students, compared to other OECD countries like the UK and Germany, which now attract about the same number of STEM students as the U.S.1 Our immigration system is letting promising early-career scientists, engineers, and researchers slip through the cracks. 

Every stage of the U.S. recruitment funnel has leaks, starting at the university level. Universities generally receive full tuition from international students and have little incentive to bring in the most promising individuals, unless they can afford to pay tuition. Universities naturally care most about how a student will benefit the university, not how the student will benefit the country or world. To put it bluntly, schools are incentivized to use foreign students as cash cows, rather than to recruit and educate individuals with the most promise for the United States. Agrawal and Gaulé, two economists studying “invisible geniuses” — teenage prodigies who do not end up contributing to global science — found that the United States’ scientific enterprise is losing out on top-tier talent like winners of the International Math Olympiad, a highly competitive international math competition. In their survey of IMO medalists, “66% dream of studying in the U.S., while only 25% manage to do so.”2

Even when talented young people can attend U.S. universities, they are quite likely to be sent home after they graduate. The H-1B program, the primary visa pathway for skilled talent to stay in the United States after graduation, essentially outsources recruitment to employer sponsors. When industry incentives discourage the selection of immigrants who generate large social benefits, the U.S. misses out on those immigrants entirely. 

If the number of H-1B petitions exceeds the cap set by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), visas are awarded through a lottery. The lottery means no weight is given to an application for a beneficiary who shows promise to make important contributions. It is not surprising, then, that Beine, Peri, and Raux find that only about 20% of foreign-born master’s graduates stay after graduating from U.S. universities and only about 10% of bachelor’s do so.3 

The O-1 program is much smaller in scale, and is designed for individuals of “extraordinary ability.” However, eligibility is limited to individuals who have already made significant contributions to their fields — not individuals with high potential to make future contributions.

Other options also have serious drawbacks when it comes to recruiting and retaining high-potential individuals. The employment-based green card categories are plagued by growing backlogs (reaching decades and centuries-long wait times for applicants from India and China). The J-1 Early Career STEM Talent Program is perhaps the one program designed for high-potential individuals but requires many participants to return to their home country for two years after the program is completed.

In short, our current system fails to proactively recruit high-potential individuals. 

The case for emerging talent 

Historically, scientific breakthroughs have come from the contributions of a relatively small number of highly productive scientists. The top 10% of scientists receive five times more citations throughout their careers than the other 90%.4 Outlier individuals make outsized contributions to their respective disciplines. As a result, it’s often worth the extra effort to find especially high performers with the potential to produce remarkable innovations. When these talents are not realized (sometimes called “lost Einsteins”),5 it is a loss for that individual and the world.

Not only does the country stand to gain if these superstars can build their careers here, but those careers will be vastly more productive than if they were built in other countries. Our knowledge networks, talent clusters, and scientific infrastructure are unmatched in the world. 

As a case study, we can look at recent research on winners of International Math Olympiads (IMO), and how much more productive they are in the U.S. For equally talented IMO medalists, those who migrated to the United States were two to three times as productive as medalists who migrated to the UK, and six times as productive as medalists who stayed home.6

The authors find that IMO scores are strongly predictive of future research productivity, indicating that it is feasible to make informed decisions about future potential. Further, they find that barriers to moving to the United States — mostly financial — blocked many medalists from offering their talents to U.S. science. If these prospective superstars are blocked from coming to the United States, we risk losing them to other countries, or, even worse, the world loses out on their potential altogether. 

It is no surprise that the productivity of scientists is influenced by the people and institutions surrounding them. Research has consistently found that scientists working and living near one another improve each other’s productivity and effectiveness. Within these talent clusters, researchers can easily share theories, iterate on prototypes, receive feedback, and sharpen their ideas.7 Researchers located in hubs benefit from increased scientific collaborations and a higher concentration of resources, including funding.8

New York and Silicon Valley are talent clusters: together, they host one-eighth of all STEM workers in the country, of whom 56% are foreign-born.9 But universities are another example of talent clusters. Many of the world’s top universities are in the U.S., and the Ivy League and large state universities are major beneficiaries of federal grant funding. 30% of academic research and development (R&D) spending occurs within the top 20 institutions, and about 80% is concentrated within the top 100.10

When STEM talents come to regions where the most knowledge is being produced (universities, research labs, etc.), they can both perform better work and make the cluster itself work better.6 High-skilled migrants do not just do better work in a cluster than they would have done abroad; clusters make the researchers they collaborate with more productive. Not only do they bring new knowledge, but the exchange of ideas between native researchers and newcomers generates new ideas that neither party would have had on their own. 

America already recruits many promising individuals through our world-class university system. But many of them can’t stay, especially if they want to do work outside academia where H-1B visas are not cap-exempt. If they do stay, visa restrictions limit their ability to commercialize their work or use it as the basis to launch new entrepreneurial ventures. And most disturbingly, our immigration system prioritizes demonstrated achievement, limiting our ability to recruit young and early-career talent in the first place. 

It does not have to be this way. The fat tail of scientific impact suggests that the U.S. has much to gain if we can better identify and recruit future talent. But while the United States has rested on its laurels, other countries have begun experimenting with recruitment based on promise.

The UK introduced the High-Potential Individual (HPI) visa in May 2022.11 The visa enables recent foreign undergraduate degree holders from the top 50 international universities to stay in the UK for a minimum of two years without requiring job sponsorship. 

Unlike the H-1B visa in the United States, which is tied to an employer and severely constrains the flexibility of beneficiaries to launch new startups, UK HPI visa holders have the freedom to engage in entrepreneurship and costlessly change employment.

Also in the UK, there’s the Global Talent Visa, launched in February 2020, designed for leaders and “potential leaders” in academia, research, technology, and the arts.12 One path to a Global Talent Visa is individuals with excellence in their respective fields, like Turing Awardees, Fields Medallists, and Nobel Prize Winners fit this profile. This pathway is analogous to the O-1A in the United States. The second pathway has no American analog: applicants who are not already leading their fields can be endorsed by leaders in the field who can attest that the applicant has high-potential.

The UK is not the only country with a newfound interest in recruiting based on potential. In April 2023, Japan started the Future Creation Individual Visa (J-Find) program for graduates from the top 100 universities, according to established rankings such as QS, Times, and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities.13 Holders of this visa can stay in Japan for up to two years, whereas graduates in the previous system had only 90 days to find work.

The United States can join the UK and Japan in a proactive approach to high-potential global talent. Below, we discuss how the United States can fill this major gap in our immigration system and grow its lead in the competition for talent.

Recommendation 1: Streamline and scale existing pathways

Perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit is to scale the one U.S. immigration program explicitly focused on early-career STEM talent: the Early Career STEM Research Initiative at the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Launched in the summer of 2021, it aims to pair the organizations authorized to sponsor J-1 visas and run cultural exchange programs with companies who can host STEM opportunities, including research. 

As an uncapped visa, the J-1 has significant potential to be scaled into an important pathway for young STEM talent. However, the J-1 is limited in duration and, in many cases, subjects participants to the requirement that they return home for at least two years after the conclusion of their program. This means that many participants are kicked out once they complete the program, and untold numbers of individuals who want to stay in the United States long-term are deterred from the program altogether. Fortunately, there are concrete steps to transform this visa into a predictable on-ramp for STEM talent.

First, we can significantly reduce the number of people who are subject to the two-year home residency requirement by updating the J-1 Exchange Visitor Skills List, the list of countries and skills which subject people to the requirement. The Biden administration has undertaken steps to start this process. As part of its campaign to attract AI talent to the United States, the AI Executive Order signed in October 2023 instructs the State Department to consider establishing criteria to determine the contents of the Skills List and to consider publishing updates.14 By making it more feasible to stay after the Early Career STEM Research Initiative, we can retain more participants and make the program more attractive in the first place. 

Second, for those still on the Skills List, the U.S. government could streamline the process for granting Interested Government Agency Waivers. The Department of Defense Research & Engineering has a formal process, including a webpage that includes a description of the application process, an application checklist, and a sample sponsor letter.15 Other government agencies (natural candidates are the NSF, NIH, DOE, NIST, and NASA) can follow this example and establish a formal process including published considerations for eligibility that would replace the ad hoc and opaque approach currently in place with something predictable, transparent, and efficient.

The J-1 Early Career STEM Research Initiative shows the U.S. is thinking about young talent. Some tweaks could allow them to scale it into a formidable program. 

Recommendation 2: Experiment with talent identification

If the United States, or any country can successfully identify and recruit individuals with high potential, they must be able to answer: what observable characteristics can the government rely on today to predict future success?

The academic literature to answer this question is growing, but the field is still nascent. Agarwal and Gaulé’s research on IMO participants discovered that students who performed particularly well-published papers at higher rates were more productive than their counterparts in their respective fields. Each additional point on the IMO was correlated with a 2.6% increase in mathematics publications and a 4.5% increase in citations.16 IMOs are relatively small, but the paper demonstrates some key points: we already know some predictors of success, and evidence can be leveraged to help identify other predictors. Funding research and pilot programs to further this literature would give practitioners a base of knowledge to use to experiment with real-world talent identification.

The fastest way of developing knowledge will simply be through practical experimentation. Allowing a variety of talent identification methods to compete will enable a diversity of approaches to be compared, evaluated, and combined. Of course, experiments should not focus excessively on optimizing a series of metrics at the expense of risk-taking on high-potential individuals, but they should allow for the analysis of alternative identification approaches. Such methods could include both metrics or tests that identify potential talent, and reliance on the discretionary judgment of experts. The ultimate goal would be to try different approaches, track outcomes, and improve over time.

Here are some natural places lawmakers should begin experimenting in talent scouting approaches:

  • Use outside recruiters. In the UK, the Global Talent Visa offers visas to those who can get 3 letters of recommendation from eminent experts attesting to their promise and potential. By contrast, the O-1 offers visas to those who, in addition to meeting other criteria, get letters of support attesting to significant contributions already made to the field. Reforming the O-1 so that it allows experts to testify to extraordinary potential — or offering a new pathway — would allow the government to outsource and decentralize some of its scouting to those most qualified. 
  • H-1B selection. Reforming H-1B selection could provide a great opportunity for serious experimentation, given that the number of available visas would allow for large sample sizes. Numerous proposals by members of Congress, previous presidential administrations, and think tanks would move the H-1B away from a lottery and towards a system that prioritizes applicants along some dimension of talent or skill. These proposals have included preference systems, salary-based rankings, DOL wage-level rankings, among other ideas. However, more creative points-based systems could also be designed to give preference to high-potential talent. 
  • Embed Talent Scouts in the State Department and Department of Defense. The Office of Science and Technology Cooperation in the State Department would be a natural fit for talent scouts housed with U.S. consulates abroad. For example, through the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Initiative, State Department officials have engaged with millions of science and technology entrepreneurs worldwide. Embedding talent scouts to both inform promising candidates about immigration opportunities would likely allow us to recruit more of them. Empowering them with the authority to make referrals to USCIS for visas could multiply the potential still further. Such officials could also be tasked with engaging with International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) talent by establishing partnerships with participating countries, as well as other international competitions.

The Department of Defense would be another natural place for talent scouts. This would be nothing new for the national security community. During Operation Paperclip at the end of the Second World War, the national security community shared dossiers on foreign scientists to identify critical experts and engineers who should be exfiltrated from Europe to work on U.S.-based defense-related projects. As great power competition returns, this model may need to be dusted off and brought back into play. On a less ambitious scale, the National Security Innovation Pathways Act proposed to authorize the Department to identify critical technology experts who could receive green cards. This could be structured in a way that gave the DoD resources to evaluate individuals and figure out the particular experts they need — and to experiment.

There may be a science to talent identification, but there’s also an art. Success at proactive talent identification cannot happen without individuals actually scouting talent. Congress should get the experiment running.

Recommendation 3: Leverage the non-profit sector

Beyond government, the private and non-profit sectors can play important roles in recruiting and identifying talent.

First, private universities can do a better job of ensuring that the U.S. scientific enterprise is not missing out on some of the most promising minds around the world who come from poor backgrounds. While the Ivy League and similar elite institutions offer premier education, prestige, and research opportunities, these opportunities remain largely inaccessible for non-wealthy internationals due to financial barriers. When most of our universities would reject a modern-day Ramanujan, something is broken. 

Agarwal and coauthors identify financial constraints as the key reason International Math Olympiad winners who want to study in the United States don’t do so. Estimates indicate that reducing financing constraints for top overseas talent could raise worldwide scientific output in future cohorts by 42%.17

Many schools have to decline admission to qualified international students due to budgetary constraints. Private universities can address some of this. Only seven U.S. institutions, mostly private research universities, are currently need-blind and meet the full demonstrated needs of international students, including Yale, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, and Princeton. Other private research universities should join them.

Philanthropic institutions can also play a role in identifying talent with high potential and lowering the financial constraints holding them back from contributing to the United States. In October 2023, The Global Talent Lab launched the “Backing Invisible Geniuses” (BIG) UK Programme in partnership with the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.18 BIG provides financial support and a network for top-ranking International Science Olympiad competitors to study at top UK universities. The program supports students who have excelled in STEM, but who otherwise could not attend selective universities in the UK.

Additionally, Schmidt Futures’ Rise scholarship serves a similar goal of identifying talented young people, including international students, and financially supporting their studies at top universities. Rise is one of several philanthropy-funded scholarship programs, including the Mastercard Foundation Scholarship, directed towards African nationals,19 and the Open Philanthropy Undergraduate Scholarship, exclusive to international students intending to study at top universities in the U.S and UK.

Philanthropies could also support participation in math and science competitions abroad to help with identification. They can increase international participation in Olympiads, build new ones like the Pan African Mathematics Olympiads, and start competitions like the Siemens competition, Regeneron Science Talent Search, International Science and Engineering Fair, and Google Science Fair.20

Historically, U.S. success in scientific and technological innovation has been heavily reliant on the country’s unparalleled ability to attract and integrate the world’s brightest minds. Decentralized recruitment has allowed the United States to make use of the diffuse networks of its employers, universities, and other institutions. However, relying on these organizations alone for recruitment and sponsorship has also let their interests dictate the selection of migrants.

As a result, the U.S. is missing out on high-potential immigrants who will not immediately benefit a sponsor. And it is operating well below its potential to use these talented individuals to drive U.S. science and innovation. Addressing this gap requires overhauling outdated immigration policies to create pathways that value potential as much as past success. 

Confronting this challenge is not merely about maintaining a competitive stance or gaining a strategic advantage. It’s about unlocking the potential of the world’s talent, thereby advancing science and research not just for the United States, but for the world.

  1. “Education - OECD Data,” the OECD, n.d.

  2. Agarwal, Ruchir, Ina Ganguli, Patrick Gaule, and Geoff Smith. “Why U.S. Immigration Barriers Matter for the Global Advancement of Science.” Iza, January 2021.

  3. Michel Beine, Giovanni Peri, and Morgan Raux, “International College Students’ Impact on the US Skilled Labor Supply,” September 1, 2022.

  4. Yuxiao Dong et al., “A Century of Science,” KDD ’17: Proceedings of the 23rd ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, August 13, 2017, 1437–46.

  5. Bell, Alex, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova, and John Van Reenen. “Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 134, no. 2 (November 29, 2018): 647–713.

  6. Agarwal et al.

  7. “Cluster Development Is the New Economic Development.” Federation of American Scientists, May 2, 2023.

  8. Bonaccorsi, Andrea, and Cinzia Daraio. “Exploring Size and Agglomeration Effects on Public Research Productivity.” Scientometrics 63, no. 1 (March 2005): 87–120.

  9. Akcigit, Ufuk, Salome Baslandze, and Stefanie Stantcheva. 2016. “Taxation and the International Migration of Inventors.” American Economic Review 106 (10): 2930–81.

  10. Frank N. Laird, “Sticky Policies, Dysfunctional Systems: Path Dependency and the Problems of Government Funding for Science in the United States,” Minerva 58, no. 4 (June 11, 2020): 513–33.

  11. Government Digital Service, “High Potential Individual (HPI) Visa.”

  12. Government Digital Service, “Apply for the Global Talent Visa.”

  13. Exum, Anika Osaki. “Japan to Create New Visa Pathways to Lure High Earners and Top Grads.” The Japan Times, February 17, 2023.

  14. White House, “Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence,” The White House, October 30, 2023.

  15. Basic Research, Research Directorate, “DoD J1 Visa Waiver Program,” n.d.

  16. Agarwal et al.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ruchir Agarwal and Patrick Gaule, “The BIG Idea: How Investing in Global Talent Fuels Both Progress and Inclusion,” Center for Global Development, November 2023.

  19. MasterCard Foundation, “Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program - Mastercard Foundation,” Mastercard Foundation, April 1, 2024.

  20. Open Philanthropy, “Open Philanthropy Undergraduate Scholarship | Open Philanthropy,” April 10, 2024.