Can America stay on top when it comes to technology and innovation? Not without change in education and immigration, Bill Gates told Congress Wednesday.
Appearing before the House Committee on Science and Technology, the Microsoft chairman stressed the urgency of implementing innovation-friendly policies in the United States.
"The center of progress will shift to other nations that are more committed to the pursuit of technical excellence," Gates warned. "If we make the right choices, the United States can remain the global innovation leader that it is today."
Gates asked the committee to help the U.S. technology industry compete in the global market. Specifically, Gates reiterated the need for improved math, science and engineering education and more visas for highly skilled workers.
"Our higher education system doesn't produce enough top scientists and engineers to meet the need of the U.S. economy," Gates said.
He said the majority of students in computer science departments at top universities are foreign-born. "We educate them -- we provide the world's very best education," Gates said. "[But] those are the students who are not allowed to stay and work in the country because of the limits we have."
So high-tech companies outsource jobs overseas -- jobs Gates said could otherwise stay in the United States.
H-1B visas allow companies to employ highly skilled foreign workers, but the number of those visas has been limited. The 65,000 visas for the current fiscal year ran out on the first day.
At Microsoft for every H-1B hire, another four employees are hired to support the position, Gates said. But if the job goes overseas, so do the extra four jobs.
Gates said education is the key to helping America compete in the future. High school student performance in math, science and engineering lags behind that of other industrialized nations.
It's not the first time Gates has addressed Congress.
Gates testified before a Senate committee about the same issues last March. But Wednesday's testimony will likely be his last.
Gates plans to leave day-to-day operations at Microsoft this year to work full time with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic organization Gates and his wife founded.
The Committee on Science and Technology recognized its 50th anniversary Wednesday, with Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., reflecting on America's historical innovations.
"As a young boy, I remember looking into the sky and seeing the blinking red dot pass overhead that struck fear into countless Americans," Gordon said, referring to the launch of Sputnik.
The space race that followed the launch spurred an unprecedented investment in research, and math and science education in the United States.
Gordon said America had coasted on those previous investments. "I fear that our children will be the first generation of Americans who do not inherit a standard of living better than their parents," he said.
The time for action is now, he said, to ensure that the United States stays a technological leader in the world.