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  • Dr. Elizabeth O'Day

Cutting Off H-1B Visas Hurts Biopharma



Science knows no boundaries. In my career, I’ve traveled the world because of science. My undergraduate and doctoral studies were in Boston, I have done stem cell research in Singapore, worked in Belgium to learn about camelid antibodies, studied chemistry in England, and given talks across the globe. This type of freedom to study and work across countries enabled me to learn from the best, expand my scientific acumen, and instilled a deep passion in me to make the world a better place. In fact, it was these experiences that empowered me to have the skills and conviction needed to enter biopharma and start Olaris. Over the last few months, the U.S. federal government has issued a number of temporary restrictions for H-1B visa holders, a policy I firmly believe will hurt the biopharmaceutical industry.


First, the facts


H-1B visas were established via the Immigration Act of 1990 signed into law by George H. W. Bush. The program allows for highly skilled and graduate school level foreign individuals educated in science, tech, data and other specialty occupations to obtain legal clearance to work in the U.S. The duration of stay is 3 years, extendable up to 5 years. J-1 visas were established by the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961 for foreigners to conduct scientific research in the U.S. 


Companies must sponsor a H-1B visa application and in doing so attest that the employment of the H-1B foreign national will not adversely affect US citizens similarly employed. The cost of H-1B visa sponsorship by a company ranges from $1,710 to $6,400 depending on the size of the company and how many employees are currently on H-1Bs. 


From 2006-2020 the H-1B visa cap has been 85,000. This includes the 65,000 stipulated from the original legislation plus 20,000 visas for “professionals who graduate with a master’s degree or doctorate from a U.S institution of higher learning.”


For the past 15 years, the number of H-1Bs that can be granted has been maxed out, Repeat applications are often required to secure one. 


H-1B holders will pay taxes as either a nonresident alien or a resident alien, which is determined by the IRS Substantial Presence Test.


What's happening now


On June 22nd 2020, Presidential Proclamation 10051 suspended immigration into the United States for H-1B visa, J-1 visa, and L visa holders. It additionally suspended the granting of new H-1B visas, J-1 visas and L visas. The proclamation argues the suspension and limitation is “ensuring that the presence in the United States of H-1B nonimmigrants does not disadvantage United States workers.” The proclamation terminates on December 31st, 2020.

The August 23rd Executive Order prevents federal agencies from hiring employees that would “displace American workers.” This would require federal employers to prove a new employee requiring an H-1B visa would not be replacing an American worker.


The impact of H-1B visa limitations on U.S. biopharma


Science is global work, and biopharma is global business. Biopharma companies need to have the ability to hire the most qualified candidate for a particular job regardless of where that person was born and raised. The biggest biopharma companies- Novartis, Sanofi, Pfizer, Amgen you name it- hire many talented workers via H-1B sponsorship to develop therapies. A recent commentary on U.S. immigration policies in Cell demonstrated that immigrants were drivers to many breakthrough therapies such as Avastin which helps individuals with molecular degeneration see better, Remicade which makes it easier for rheumatoid arthritis patients to walk, CAR-T cell therapies that can bring long-term remission to many cancer patients and more. Even our hope for a COVID vaccine can be tied to the work of an immigrant – one of the founders of Moderna, one of the forerunners in vaccine development- was an international student at MIT. If we want more innovation (and we need it) we can’t cut off the talent pool. 


When the new immigration policies were announced many biopharma leaders voiced serious concern.

John Maraganore, CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, captured it best, “In our biopharma industry’s fight against human disease, including Covid-19, we need the best people in the world! Policies that block access to global talent have dire consequences!”. 

While there are currently some exemptions to the new H-1B restrictions for workers in industries related to COVID-19, limiting visas will inevitably slow scientific progress and stymie ideas that could help us battle against the pandemic.


COVID-19 has had terrible effects. Many of my friends and family have lost jobs. I understand the desire to boost employment. However, the logic that limiting H-1B visas will allow more American citizens to get jobs is not reasonable for biopharma. Simply put, there aren’t enough Americans trained at the highest levels of science to fill the job openings.


American universities are training the best and the brightest in the sciences- and the majority of those trainees are foreigners. The National Foundation for American Policy reported in 2017 that 79% of students in computer science, 57% in chemical engineering, and 56% in pharmaceutical sciences at U.S institutions were international (Table 1). If the U.S. federal government wants citizens to be more competitive for today’s biopharma jobs, it must do more to both improve and encourage today’s youth to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.


Many international students trained in the US want to stay here, rent or buy homes, dine at restaurants shop at local stores, participate in our economy, become active members of the community, and even pay taxes, all while contributing to scientific discoveries with the potential to transform society-- or at least they used to. What will happen if visas become limited and they can’t find jobs? They will go elsewhere. The current immigration policy risks American biopharma losing access to its greatest resource: talented scientists. If we want to remain a hub for innovation I believe we should be pushing in the opposite direction. We must go beyond simply seeking to retain those trained here towards truly welcoming scientists from across the globe. 


Looking ahead


Olaris has 12 employees, 2 with H-1B visas, another under petition and 2 new hires we are eager to bring on board but are awaiting clarity on the new visa policy. For a small company this is a significant financial commitment, but it is absolutely necessary. Our technology combines nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, machine learning, biostatistics, clinical data and a deep understanding of biology to develop diagnostic tools that determine which specific therapies will benefit an individual. There is a limited number of people in the world with the required skills. If Olaris is to be successful, I need to find these individuals, bring them together, and let them get to work. Visa sponsorship is a no-brainer. Quite honestly, the H-1B changes have shaken my own company’s growth strategy. Think about what is happening across the entire biopharma industry. 


If the U.S. continues on its current H-1B path, biopharma companies who cannot hire the workers they need will be faced with a few choices: Establish new hubs abroad or move main offices to other countries, outsource the work when possible to service providers in other countries, or decide against pursuing the work altogether. None of these choices seem nearly as good for the companies, or the U.S. economy, as bringing on additional full-time workers. Denying H-1B visas is bad economics and bad for science.


Just this month, the Department of Homeland Security submitted a new H-1B regulation to the Office of Management and Budget for final review that further restricts the definition of “specialty occupation” and will make it more difficult for visa holders to work at third party customer locations. It is designated as an ‘interim final rule’, meaning it will go into effect immediately without public input. Not OK! As politicians debate the future of H-1B visas, I’m hopeful that policymakers and the public understand the importance of H-1Bs for innovation especially in biopharma. More than ever we need good science and good science knows no boundaries. 



Table 1. Full-time Graduate Students and the Percent of International Students by Field (2015)

Source: National Science Foundation, Survey of Graduate Students and Post-doctorates, NFAP calculations. U.S. students include lawful permanent residents. 



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