The mover’s advantage: The superior performance of migrant scientists

by on November 26, 2013 at 6:37 am in Education, Law, Science | Permalink

That is a new paper by Chiara Franzoni, Giuseppe Scellato and Paula Stephan, and the abstract is this:

Migrant scientists outperform domestic scientists. The result persists after instrumenting migration for reasons of work or study with migration in childhood to minimize the effect of selection. The results are consistent with theories of knowledge recombination and specialty matching.

The university-gated version is here.  There are more new immigration papers here, via Kevin Lewis.

By the way, over sixty percent of the scientists and engineers of Silicon Valley were born outside of the United States.  By the way, here is a new Swiss paper (pdf) on attitudes toward immigrant foreigners.

The Anti-Gnostic November 26, 2013 at 8:14 am

That’s “science and engineering,” not “scientists and engineers.”

Luke November 26, 2013 at 8:27 am

Well, then we should open the borders for everybody.

I cant read the article about superioer performance. Is it about scientists all over the world, or is it just about those who have migrated to america?

albert magnus November 26, 2013 at 9:38 am

I worked in academic physics for a time and it was always a question of how many foreign grad students you should let in. If you just went on test scores and grades few schools would have anything more than foreign students. On the other hand, its well known that foreign students have access to lots of old versions of the entry exams which domestic students don’t seem to have. Also, foreign students do very well on English exams even though they can’t hold a conversation with an English speaker. Schools I know about just split the difference foreign/domestic and called it a day.

Of course, very few students of any sort make very good scientists.

Rahul November 26, 2013 at 12:57 pm

(a) Design better English exams?
(b) Why don’t Departments put “old versions of the entry exams” on the web & equalize access? Why should it remain a nefarious black market?
(c) Professors can be a little less lazy and avoid recycling old qualifying exam problems?

albert magnus November 26, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Yes, those are all good ideas and there might be people trying to do all of them. I’m mostly talking about the Subject GREs and TOEFL, so the schools don’t have a lot of control of how they are given nor are there a lot of options. Mostly, the foreign students are pretty good, its just that there are a lot of domestic students (like myself) who are unaware what the standards are they are competing against, but are still good students.

Marian Kechlibar November 28, 2013 at 9:02 am

It is far easier to sit a written English exam than to hold fluent conversation with a native speaker. To be capable of the latter, either you have to be extraordinarily talented, or you must have had significant contact with a number of native speakers (I would say, at least 4 hours a week, probably more).

Careless November 28, 2013 at 5:56 pm

We’re talking about students who got a 640+ on the TOEFL but were unable to understand “this is not your classroom” in any combination of English words. Pure faked or cheated scores for some number of them.

S November 26, 2013 at 10:11 am

The domestic talent pool for science and engineering has been shifting towards other sectors (banking, finance, management, whatever the hell it is people fo in Wahsington,…) in recent decades. 1) more money 2) less competition from foreigners 3) status. Maybe this substitution is a good thing, mauybe not. I dont know.

As far as rock star sillicon valley engineers, Brin, and Jobs, etc…those guys are basically lottery winners in the engineering game. Right idea at the right time. We should expect those people to be randomly distributed amongst nations capable of producing such talent. In fact, the US may be over represented. Maybe.

albert magnus November 26, 2013 at 10:30 am

The paper talks about all the scientists and engineers with bachelor’s degrees in the two counties that contain Silicon Valley. I’m sure that includes a lot of low cost coding shops and whatnot.

Axa November 26, 2013 at 10:39 am

Being a foreign post-grad a couple times I can give my two cents. As a foreign you don’t spend as much time in social activities like the locals. You don’t have to visit grandma, your parents every month, or dedicate time and energy to the _____ club, charity, religion, etc. You have the time and energy for research available at all times. You don’t worry about where you live cause most probable is that you rent, politics and taxes are for locals, politics in your research center are irrelevant to you since you’re temporal, when you go for a drink you keep thinking and talking about research ……even, some weekends out of pure boredom you work on your research. You even have time to post on MR since nobody ask anything from you.

I’d go for the more “disconnected” physically and mentally from home, the easier is to find a solution for abstract problems.

anonymous November 26, 2013 at 11:13 am

Agree. You can see this not just in the US, but in Europe as well. Foreign students and post-docs simply have many fewer external calls on their time and attention.

Rahul November 26, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I could be wrong, but isn’t this study based on “migration in childhood”? If so mom and dad are probably still visited each month. Etc.

john personna November 26, 2013 at 10:40 am

In Southern California also, computer and electronic engineering was heavily immigrant based. There are a number of selections involved. In their home country, more smart people may choose engineering. We needed more good engineers than we had. Etc. I am afraid I have low patience for below-average US engineers who complain that without immigration they’d be doing better. The shortfall is in good engineers, not plodders with a entitlement syndrome.

anonymous November 26, 2013 at 11:41 am

Not entirely fair. American engineers don’t just have to be in the top 1% (say) out of 330M to get a good position in their home country. They also have to compete against the top 1% of the other 6.8B — outnumbered 20:1. Or rather, they have to compete against the subset of that 1% that want to come to the US (and were not barred by gender or extreme poverty from education) – still seriously outnumbered.

At the same time, most other countries are essentially closed to US engineers. Even in countries where US workers would be a good fit language and culturally, such as the UK, there are very strict quotas.

It makes much more sense for an American with math/analytic skills to go into business or medicine or law, rather than to compete against huge odds, unless they’re sure they’re in the 0.1%.. Especially if they are female and would otherwise have to accept a situation in which many (even a majority) of co-workers and line managers are from countries where the concept of gender equality is entirely absent.

john personna November 26, 2013 at 11:46 am

You got me, I didn’t intend to be “entirely fair.”

john personna November 26, 2013 at 12:08 pm

BTW, on what “an American with math/analytic skills” should do .. I think they should apply those skills to degree and career income data.

mpowell November 27, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Lol. My keen analytic skills have determined that there is virtually no way for a college grad to determine career income data of prospective career paths. Even with complete access to current prevailing wages, this would tell you little about the shape of things 20 years down the road during peak earning years.

Rahul November 26, 2013 at 1:01 pm

I’m not sure if UK quotas are any more stringent than US quotas.

ChrisA November 26, 2013 at 7:44 pm

“most other countries are essentially closed to US engineers” – not true, at least in the oil and gas industry which is run largely by expatriate Americans and Brits.

Roy November 29, 2013 at 7:59 am

But we all know oil and gas jobs are not “real jobs”

Actually this is my field and almost all of the Americans engineers are from oil producing places, and are often children of people working in the oil business.

Ted Craig November 26, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Are all the immigrants “good engineers?” Or are many lower cost “plodders?”

john personna November 26, 2013 at 4:04 pm

It’s interesting. In the early years I worked in high end shops which paid good rates, with a large number of immigrants. In later years I worked in more “frugal” shops that used outsourcing more. You don’t actually want to pay “plodders” enough to live in America. You have them telecommute from the Philippines. (That was again “not entirely fair,” we got some good work for embarrassingly low wages, from our Philippines workers.)

Curt F. November 26, 2013 at 11:13 am

“Our measure of performance is the Impact Factor of the focal article.” I did not read the supplemental information, and in the main text of the article I did not find a description of how the Impact Factor of individual *articles* was computed. It could be that the IF of an article is just the IF of the publishing journal. If so, then there are many well-known problems with using this metric as a measure of scientist performance.

Silas Barta November 26, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Stupid question: isn’t that because only the most capable scientists move in the first place?

Harold November 30, 2013 at 2:29 am


Bill November 26, 2013 at 4:17 pm

I’d say this is probably a question of status. Medicine draws all the scientifically-oriented, high achieving domestic students with status and money.

Paul November 26, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Not to mention money. I believe that average annual income of doctors in the U.S. is higher than the average income of CEOs, at least according to the BLS.

Zach November 26, 2013 at 6:02 pm

It’s no skin off my nose, since I’m both an American and did two foreign postdocs. A few observations:

1) Living in a foreign country while working full time is *hard*. It takes a lot of commitment, and most of the results are probably due to self selection — ie, you don’t spend years in a foreign country unless you intend to make it worth your while. Plus, it can turn into a little bit of a sweatshop environment, because you don’t have many distractions.

2) The US and UK are a slight exception, because so many people learn English at young ages. It’s still hard, but the language barrier is less.

2a) Countries like Germany are moving towards English in the workplace — not so much to attract Americans as to attract people from non German speaking countries. I believe that France still insists on French.

3) At the same institution, domestic and international students/workers are pretty comparable.

4) Although production of scientists is distributed pretty widely, employment is concentrated in a few major countries, with the US playing a disproportionate role. Many scientists in Europe, China, etc, believe that you have to make it in the US before you have a chance at getting a job in your home country. (In all my time in Germany, I only knew one German who had gotten a professorship without doing grad school or a postdoc in the US.) Sadly, the reverse is not true — the US is much less impressed by a European position, and anything outside Europe isn’t even on the radar.

The best case scenario for all concerned would probably be for other countries to produce scientific jobs in closer proportion to their production of scientists. That would reduce wage pressure and the sweatshop effect, and allow people to work closer to home.

mpowell November 27, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Well, if people in Germany don’t take post docs there seriously for hiring consideration, why should people in the US?

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Innovation November 27, 2013 at 3:50 am

Here is an idea;

Why dont we just force more people to move around?

Americans moved to Canada. Canadians moved to Korea. Koreans moved to Italy. Italians moved to America.

Then we would truly see superioer performance in all countries compared to today. Only silly people would oppose this strategy.

It could save the world.

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