'Iron Man' Reflects Hidden Side of U.S. Innovation
Wealthy industrialist Tony Stark swaggers back onto the silver screen in "Iron Man 2" as a poster boy for real-life U.S. entrepreneurs who have built technological empires upon geeky pursuits. But the superhero sequel also touches on the role that foreign-born scientists and engineers play in the broader story of American innovation.
Stark channels the confidence and ambition of real-life innovator Elon Musk, in large part because Musk's fast-lane lifestyle and technological prowess provided much inspiration for director Jon Favreau's updated Iron Man . Musk takes on dual roles as both CEO and lead technologist for his companies Tesla Motors and SpaceX, as he relentlessly pursues futuristic visions of electric cars and private spaceflight.
There's a big difference between Musk and Stark aside from the superhero suit, though — Musk was born and raised in South Africa. Yet the red-blooded patriotism of the fictional Tony Stark almost pales in comparison to the fervor Musk has for the U.S.
"It is where great things are possible," Musk said in a Florida Today interview. "I am nauseatingly pro-American."
Foreign students see the U.S. as a hot ticket destination because they want the best education in science or engineering, said Yeonji No, a public policy Ph.D. student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. She explained that the U.S. also provides more venture capital and support for startup companies looking to capitalize on innovation, as well as strong intellectual property rights.
But tightened restrictions for foreign-born students who want to train and work in the U.S. could now threaten American innovation when it's needed most, according to editors of the scientific journal Nature. Their editorial late last year warned of the frustration stemming from a complex immigration system that may discourage the most creative minds from making the U.S. their home.
Would-be U.S. innovators
The darker side to the Iron Man story arrives in the form of a Soviet physicist who defected to the U.S. and helped design the arc reactor technology that powers the Iron Man suit. But his eventual deportation meant that he could only pass on his knowledge to his embittered son Ivan Vanko, who eventually turns his vengeful gaze upon Stark's success.
Hollywood fiction has unintentional parallels with the real life of Xuesen Qian, a Chinese-born aeronautical engineer who studied at MIT and helped found Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His career came to an abrupt halt in 1950 when FBI accusations of Communist associations led to his arrest, despite the protests of his Caltech colleagues and fierce debate over his innocence that has lasted until this day.
Qian eventually gave up trying to clear his name and willingly returned to China, where he received a hero's welcome. He responded by leading China's ballistic missile and space program into the modern age. Both U.S. and Chinese experts have said that the Chinese space program would have remained decades behind if not for his work.
"It was the stupidest thing this country ever did," said former Navy Secretary Dan Kimball in a later Aviation Week interview. "He was no more a Communist than I was, and we forced him to go."
That extreme example highlights the U.S. conundrum of wanting to attract the best foreign researchers, but also wanting to prevent foreign nationals from having access to sensitive information. The conflicting mindsets complicate cooperation among lab groups that include both U.S. citizens and non-citizens.
"It's actually a very common problem in the science end engineering departments of universities that do sensitive work for the government," said John Walsh, a public policy researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology who focuses on questions of science and innovation.
Foreign students earned more than half of science and engineering Ph.D. degrees recently awarded by U.S. universities, according to a 2010 report by the National Science Foundation. Yet it's not just about quantity — Walsh and Yeonji No found that the foreign-born tend to make more high-quality innovations in comparison to U.S.-born innovators. Their work was detailed in the March issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology.
Innovation was gauged by quality of patents, which depended on self-reported quality, citations by other innovator's patents, and the chance that patents led to commercial products. Walsh and No also accounted for other factors such as field of study, education level and the company or project where innovators did their work.
The findings come as no surprise when considering that a "double selection" process screens for the best and brightest among foreign innovators, Walsh told TechNewsDaily. First, many of the top students or researchers self-select by choosing to head for better opportunity in the U.S. And second, certain U.S. immigration policies select for the best scientists and engineers among potential arrivals.
But Walsh points to past studies on how tighter overall immigration policies since 9/11 have discouraged some students from studying in the U.S., despite the selective process that still invites the best to apply. As a result, nations such as Japan, France and the UK have begun siphoning off more foreign talent. Even nations which traditionally supply science and engineering students — notably China — have stepped up efforts to keep their finest innovators by offering better education and other benefits.
Assuring the future for U.S. innovation
There's still hope for keeping U.S. innovation alive and well. One of the current immigration proposals floating around the U.S. Congress would offer any foreign student earning an advance degree in science or engineering a work visa, regardless of the current cap on work visa numbers.
Many nations still envy the U.S. system because of its dynamic nature, and because it does attract many leading scientists, engineers, innovators and entrepreneurs. Walsh and No's recent work drew great interest in Japan, where severe immigration policies keeps foreign worker numbers relatively low.
But even nations in which conditions are good may not hold onto their best talent, if the U.S. can still offer the lure of working with the best from around the world.
"When reporters ask [Japanese baseball] players Ichiro or Matsui why they want to go to the U.S., they say 'we want to try our hand against the best in the world,'" Walsh explained. "In the same way, foreign-born scientists and engineers want to try their hands at what they perceive as the major leagues."
That suggests there's good reason to keep the major leagues open. After all, a harsher immigration system might have discouraged a real-life Iron Man such as Musk from ever reaching U.S. shores in the first place.