At MIT, Commerce Secretary Recruits Techies, Pushes R&D Increase

With most of today’s political news coverage looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election, it’s easy to forget that the Obama administration still has more than a year left.

The prospects are bleak for Congress to pass much of the president’s remaining agenda, but that doesn’t keep him and members of his cabinet from pushing policy initiatives during public appearances.

On Friday, it was Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker touring MIT’s campus in Cambridge, MA, followed by a speech and a question-and-answer session with MIT president Rafael Reif.

The talk, which was attended by about 150 people, touched on themes like immigration reform, expanding broadband access, training workers, public-private partnerships, and investment in research. Here are three quick takeaways from Pritzker’s appearance:

1. Don’t hold your breath for immigration reform. Pritzker (pictured above in a 2014 photo) talked a lot about the importance of overhauling immigration laws that “make no sense,” particularly in the context of how we often treat entrepreneurial foreigners.

There are more than 1.1 million foreign students studying at American universities, including about 40 percent of the master’s and PhD candidates in STEM programs, Pritzker said. But “once we train many of these talented men and women, more often than not, we force them to leave,” she said. “We should be stapling a green card to their diploma when they graduate.”

Passing immigration reform is a long shot for the foreseeable future. “The prognosis right now for seeing action in this Congress, there doesn’t seem to be any movement on this issue at all,” Pritzker said. “Hopefully in a new Congress, maybe we’ll be able to get something done in this area because the pressure is mounting.”

2. Uncle Sam wants you, young techies. One of Pritzker’s goals with the MIT visit was apparently to recruit some of the vaunted research university’s best and brightest to come to Washington, D.C. In her prepared remarks and again during the subsequent Q&A session, Pritzker encouraged the young people in the room to consider a stint in public service, even if just for a year or two.

“It’s consequential, it’s really important, and, frankly, we need folks like you with greater knowledge of the technologies, not just of today but what’s coming,” Pritzker said. “We’re in the middle of a technological revolution. We know it. We don’t have enough people who understand what that means in our government.”

Recruiting from the tech industry has been a focus for the Obama administration, which has lured former employees of well-known Silicon Valley companies to work in Washington. The tech teams have worked on everything from fixing the website to making federal agencies’ computer systems run more efficiently.

3. Changing the conversation around research dollars. In the midst of federal budget negotiations and a possible government shutdown, Pritzker warned of the consequences of extending the so-called “sequester” levels of funding that would result in what both she and Reif consider an unacceptable amount of research spending. By sequester, she means the deep, across-the-board budget cuts enacted two years ago, which automatically took effect after Congress failed to agree on a budget with more targeted spending reductions.

The way the research funding debate is framed makes a difference, Reif said. “If we think that research is spending, it’s the wrong discussion. It’s an investment. If we stop investing, then we’re going to be in trouble.”

Other nations, particularly in Asia, are catching up to the U.S. Reif pointed out that the list of top patent-generating universities worldwide last year included five schools from Asian countries in the top 20, and one in the top 10. “They were nowhere in that landscape 20 years ago,” Reif said, referring specifically to China’s Tsinghua University, which ranked third, just behind MIT. (The University of California system was number one).

“It’s a real challenge,” Pritzker said. “If you look in real dollars, our investment in R&D in this country is flat since, I think, 1980. It’s actually quite concerning at a time when the rest of the world, as you said, is not standing still.”

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