Foreign minds, fenceless imagination: The 2013 Vilcek Foundation Prizes
Prashant Nair and Jan Vilcek, The FASEB Journal

Every year, the White House announces the winners of the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Awarded during a special ceremony by the president, these medals represent the highest honors bestowed by the United States government on scientists and engineers. In his address during the White House awards ceremony in the fall of 2011, President Obama noted that nine of the 12 honorees were born outside of the U.S.. The winners came to the U.S., he said, because “America is the best place in the world to do the work they do.”

At a time when immigration counts as an issue of pressing political currency, the importance of foreign-born scientists to the U.S. biomedical research enterprise bears repeating: the proportion of foreign-born researchers among recipients of high honors bestowed on American scientists typically exceeds the percentage of foreign-born people living in the U.S., which—including undocumented aliens—hovers around 13% of the general population. In fact, at least one in three scientists honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work done in the U.S. during the past century was born outside of the country.

The United States is a nation of immigrants, and most Americans are proud of their ancestral roots. Nevertheless, a significant portion of the populace subscribes to the view that new immigrants are a burden on the country's economy. To raise public awareness of the invaluable contribution of immigrants to science in America, the Vilcek Foundation initiated an annual program of prizes to recognize accomplished foreign-born biomedical scientists who are widely regarded as leaders in their fields. Currently, each of these prizes includes a cash …

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