Pioneering Researcher in Electric Cars Questions the Economic Wisdom of Restricting Immigrants

Chinese immigrant Shanjun Li, an associate professor at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, has devoted his career to helping improve the American economy — and our environment — through his pioneering work in environmental and energy economics.

Li’s research is widely cited by scholars and national media. Regarding his groundbreaking research on electric cars, funded by the National Science Foundation, Li says “To see my research cited by others and impact policy making, that is very rewarding.”

Specifically, Li and his collaborators have proposed policies to promote the adoption of electric cars (EVs), which are currently quite expensive. Until now, the government has offered subsidies to promote EV sales. This hasn’t worked very well, but Li and his team found a better strategy: Have the government subsidize the charging stations instead.

Li explains that “range anxiety” prevents many people from buying electric vehicles. “People become very anxious that they might run out of battery power, so building charging stations can help people reduce anxiety and promote more adoption,” he says. He adds that while building out charging infrastructure would encourage an increase in sales, it wouldn’t increase government costs.

Li came to the United States in 2000 to attend graduate school at Michigan State University, and later earned a doctorate in economics from Duke University. Now a professor at Cornell University, he is one of many U.S. immigrants helping the U.S. economy meet its need for highly skilled workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

According to New American Economy, more than 50 percent of PhDs graduating from U.S. universities in many STEM fields are foreign-born, and their skills are necessary to fill the nation’s shortage of STEM professions: By 2018, the shortfall of advanced-degree STEM holders is projected to exceed 200,000 workers

Li, who is now a U.S. permanent resident, says his experience in the United States has been very positive overall. “What’s appealing to me about America is the openness of the society, and the way people in general treat immigrants. In my day-to-day interactions with students and colleagues, I don’t think they judge me based on where I’m from. They judge me based on how well I do my job and how well I treat others,” he says.

We can’t take for granted that that the well-trained students and highly skilled workers will automatically want to stay here.

However, national policies restricting immigration make Li uncertain if he will seek citizenship or choose ultimately to return to China. He has also noticed that many international students are opting to return to their home countries rather than begin their careers in the United States. Their reason is the uncertainty and anxiety created by the lottery system used to grant visas to high-skilled workers. In the first week of 2015, for example, more than 230,000 immigrants applied for just 85,000 visas. It’s a problem, because this country is in dire need of smart, hardworking international graduates.

“These students will determine the future of science and technology, says Li. “The United States has been a leader in the science field largely because we have been able to attract and retain talent from around the world, but things are changing. We can’t take for granted that the well-trained students and highly skilled workers will automatically want to stay here. There is an international market for talent, and we have to work hard to complete in this market.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…