WASHINGTON, D.C.  — A group of business and university leaders called on the U.S. government Wednesday to fix broken immigration policies that are interfering with efforts to recruit the world’s best and brightest. With federal budget cuts looming, the group also asked officials to recognize that government-funded research at universities and in industry is a key driver of economic growth.

“There are jobs in the United States today that are open because we don’t have the skilled workforce to [fill] them,” said Ellen Kullman, president, chair, and chief executive officer of chemical giant DuPont. “If we want to continue to create economic growth, we have to fill those jobs with the best and the brightest, wherever they come from, and our own universities are educating them today. That is a job creator, because innovation creates momentum in the economy. That skills gap we have today is slowing down economic growth in the United States.”

Kullman’s comments came as part of an unusual business and higher education roundtable where the leaders of seven major companies and the presidents of seven universities discussed innovation and its role in creating jobs. The session, held in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Bloomberg News just a block from the White House, was convened by Harvard University President Drew Faust and John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, a group of corporate leaders that formed in 1972 to influence public policy. The roundtable included the leaders of Eli Lilly, Cummins, Siemens, Meritor, Accenture, and SAS Institute, as well as DuPont, and the heads of Harvard, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Davis, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the University of Iowa, and the University of Virginia.

In her introductory remarks, Faust said she hoped the event would lead to the group speaking out clearly and forcefully on the key issues of immigration, research funding, and intellectual property rights. With a joint congressional “super committee” considering ways to slash the U.S. budget deficit, and with a presidential election looming, Faust said this is a critical time to get the message out to the nation’s leaders.

“We face a unique and pressing opportunity to address the future of innovation,” Faust said. “We believe it’s important to amplify our collective voices … and describe our shared goals more forcefully and effectively.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who addressed the group at lunch, said that it’s important for Washington to hear from concerned groups on key issues like innovation.

The United States has long been an educational destination for bright, energetic students from around the world, but participants said the spread of technology and the rapid development of new research institutions by nations seeking to emulate the American model creates greater incentive for those students to stay home. Add to that U.S. immigration policies that make it difficult for graduates to choose to stay here when their schooling is done, and you have a brain drain of people who could drive innovation, job creation, and economic growth.

“If you want a job killer, a job killer is having some of these would-be entrepreneurs go back to those countries and create jobs there that compete against us and take jobs out of this country,” said John Lechleiter, chairman of the board, president, and chief executive officer of Eli Lilly.

Members of the group recommended increasing the numbers of some kinds of visas and an educational campaign to highlight the economic benefit of retaining high-skilled, foreign-born workers who were educated here to differentiate this issue from the larger one of illegal immigration, which political leaders don’t seem eager to reopen.

Government support of research through grants to university research and tax credits for corporate research is critically important, participants said. William Green, chairman of the board of Accenture, a global management consulting company, said that the days when the United States dominated global research are over. Today, other governments are investing in research. The major competition for U.S. companies in the future will come from the new multinationals growing up in other countries. Green said it is pivotal for the United States to devise a fresh growth strategy before those countries and companies catch up. He also said that during this crisis, people are looking to the places that have been sources of innovation in the past.

“We have a crisis in confidence and credibility in this country. And one of the last sets of institutions people believe in are the institutions that got us where we are today, which is our national research institutions,” Green said.

That global competitive environment extends to education as well, Faust said, with some universities making very competitive offers for both faculty and students.

Several university leaders said the unstable funding environment for basic research may make students reconsider planned careers in the sciences. Unlike lawyers or businesspeople, scientists face funding uncertainties that are linked to the vagaries of national politics, and that uncertainty may make them pursue other interests. In addition, stable funding has to target not just promising research that can be developed into products and services, but basic science, the fruits of which may be decades away. The university leaders acknowledged that controlling education costs is an important part of the picture, both to ensure that dollars are well spent and that their institutions remain affordable.

In the third segment of the event, participants sought ways to increase protection of U.S. intellectual property overseas and discussed the lessons from recent patent reform that can be applied to the issues of immigration and research funding. For that legislation, key interested groups got together to hash out differences, and the result was a bill that produced little controversy. MIT President Susan Hockfield said the consensus behind that legislation may indicate that it’s important for universities and industry to lobby together for increased research funding and immigration reform.

Though the nation’s debt problems are real, said John Engler, former Michigan governor and president of the Business Roundtable, the amount the United States spends on research is a tiny fraction of the budget. He said the old adage that you don’t eat your seed corn applies to this situation, since cutting research funding because of budget troubles will only ensure more problems tomorrow.

Voices from the trees