WASHINGTON, D.C.--After inviting Bill Gates to help celebrate its 50th anniversary, the House Science and Technology Committee had no intention of putting him through the wringer. So it was no surprise that the Microsoft chair came, talked, and conquered the panel today during a 2-hour discussion on how to improve U.S. competitiveness.
Gates was the sole witness at the hearing, held by a committee created in the wake of Sputnik to find ways to reassert U.S. leadership in science. In between the bouquets being tossed for his corporate acumen and philanthropic largess, however, there were some sharp exchanges over Gates's advocacy for raising the number of annual visas given to foreign scientists. The hearing also provided a personal glimpse into how the demigod of the computing industry manages his children's use of the Internet.
Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN) was clearly flattered--and flustered--that the world's third-richest man had agreed to show up before the committee he chairs. In his opening remarks, Gordon declared that "Bill Gates embodies both the American spirit of innovation and the theological virtue of charity. … I can think of no other witness better suited to share his insights with this committee." A few minutes later, however, after other members had showered similar praise on Gates, Gordon announced that "we will now begin our questions. And as chair, I recognize myself." At that point, an aide leaned over and, presumably, suggested that Gates be allowed to present his testimony first.
When given the chance to talk, Gates wasted no time making two points: U.S. companies face "a severe shortage" of scientists and engineers, and the federal government "doesn't invest enough in basic research." Both are familiar topics to Gordon and the rest of the committee, which was one of the sponsors of last year's America COMPETES Act (ScienceNOW, 3 August 2007) that calls for a big boost in federal support for research and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. Asked later where federal dollars could make the biggest impact, Gates singled out the National Science Foundation, for which the legislation authorizes a 7-year doubling. "Its budget isn't very large, but what it does is very impactful," Gates asserted. "Any increase would generate a big return on investment." Legislators repeatedly assured Gates that they agreed wholeheartedly with his assessment.
Gates also called for a doubling of the number of H-1B visas granted, so that U.S. companies can hire foreign scientists and engineers. Gates said that Microsoft and other companies need these visas to fill positions that demand "the best talent from anywhere in the world." The current annual limit is 65,000, a quota that is usually filled within days of becoming available.
This idea, however, drew a decidedly mixed reaction from the panel. Some members worried that raising the cap would hurt U.S. students seeking high-tech jobs and that the effect might be felt even earlier in the educational pipeline. "Won't more H-1B visas discourage U.S. students from getting STEM degrees?" asked Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA). Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) argued that expanding the number of H-1B visas would discriminate against U.S. students who, although not at the top of their class, were nevertheless capable of working for Microsoft and other companies. "Our job is not to replace the B and C students … with A students from India," he pointed out.
Gates replied that U.S. students are already facing global competition and that restricting the entry of foreign talent simply penalizes U.S. companies. "Computer science isn't a game played just in the United States. It's more like the Olympics," Gates said. "No H-1B visa policy will affect the proportion of students going into IT [information technology] fields. It's just a way of deciding where they will work."
The real problem is one of quantity, not quality, Gates added. U.S.-born computer science majors from top U.S. universities "have their pick of five job offers" upon graduation, he said. He also asserted that hiring foreign workers raises all boats: "Microsoft has found that for every H-1B hire we make, we add on average four additional employees to support them in various capacities."
The testiest moment of the hearing took place when Representative Steven Rothman (D-NJ) pushed Gates on the broader issue of immigration. "Should there be any limits at all on H-1B visas?" he asked. "Should we have any quotas at all on immigrants?"
The question seemed to put Gates on the defensive. For one of the few times at the hearing, he seemed to avoid answering the question. "I've personally written $5 billion worth of tax checks to the U.S. government," said Gates, referring obliquely to his net worth of $58 billion. "And I don't begrudge it in any way." Asked again if he favored any limits on immigration, Gates explained that "Microsoft doesn't take a position on the broader issue. But personally, I think immigration has been a great thing for this country."
Perhaps realizing that he had touched a nerve, Rothman quickly followed up by soliciting Gates's advice on how society can cope with rapid technological changes. His answer offered a peek into the Gates's household.
"Whenever new technology comes along, it presents parents with legitimate concerns," Gates explained. "My oldest [child] is 11, so we haven't gotten into Facebook and text messaging yet. And we keep our computers out in the open, so my kids know that we will be walking by and looking at whatever they are doing. ... I will always be involved."
The reference to his children was part of a recurring theme of the hearing--namely, how the government can preserve U.S. scientific leadership for succeeding generations. Gordon raised the topic during his first round of questions to Gates, during which he also displayed his own brand of competitiveness. Explaining that he prepared for the hearing by trying to find common ground with the corporate titan, Gordon noted that "you're a billionaire, and I'm not. I'm a college graduate, and you're not. But we both have 7-year-old daughters, and we are both obsessed with trying to make sure that they inherit a better standard of living."