Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Immigrant innovators outpace American inventors

Past research points to the significant role immigrants play in American innovation. Studies have shown that immigrants represent nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. They comprise more than a quarter of the nation’s Nobel Prize winners. A recent study by Professor Rebecca Diamond of Stanford and her colleagues, Abhisit Jiranaphawiboon, a PhD student at Stanford GSB; Beatriz Pousadaopen in new window, a PhD student at Stanford; Shai Bernsteinopen in new window of Harvard Business School; and Timothy McQuadeopen in new window of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, directly measure the output of patents from foreign-born inventors living in the US in their working paper. Their conclusion: "The average immigrant is substantially more productive than the average U.S.-born inventor."

The researchers started with an understanding of how social security numbers work: their first numbers contain the year of birth. In their database, they identified 300 million adults who had lived in the country between 1990 and 2016 and then used Social Security numbers to identify those who had immigrated after age 19. Using names and address history, the researchers matched individuals in the database to those listed as inventors with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Their findings show that immigrants generate patents across a broad swath of sectors, including computers, electronics, chemicals, and medicine. They also discovered that, while all inventors reach peak productivity in their late 30s and early 40s, immigrants decline from that peak at a slower rate than U.S.-born inventors over the rest of their careers.

Why? Some of the trend can be explained by self-selection since the types of people who migrate to the U.S. on high-skilled visas are likely to be successful. Another factor is the positive effect of diversity: collaboration with inventors in other countries and use of foreign technologies in their patented products seemed to yield productivity. Whatever the causes, the effects redound to U.S. scientists and society. The authors say the policy implication is:

The U.S. has done an amazing job of attracting the best and the brightest immigrants. Any policy that would revamp the visa process might want to consider how big a deal immigrants are in our innovation output.


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