The Misallocation of International Math Talent

Wealthier countries allocate a greater proportion of their workers to science and engineering, fields which produce ideas that often benefit everyone. This is one reason why we all gain when other countries become rich. It’s not just the number of scientists and engineers that matters, however. In a clever paper, Agarwal and Gaule demonstrate that equally talented people are more productive in wealthier countries.

Agarwal and Gaule collect the scores of thousands of teenagers who entered the International Math Olympiad between 1981 and 2000 and they follow their careers. Every additional point earned at the Olympiad increases the likelihood that a participant will later earn a math PhD, be heavily cited, even earn a Fields medal. But Olympians from poorer countries are less likely to contribute to the mathematical frontier than equally talented teens from richer countries. It could be that smart teens from poorer countries are less likely to pursue a math career–and that could well be optimal–but Agarwal and Gaule find that many of the talented kids from poorer countries simply disappear off the world’s radar. Their talent is wasted.

The post-Olympiad loss is not the largest loss. Most of the potentially great mathematicians from poorer countries are lost to the world long before the opportunity to participate in an Olympiad. But it is frustrating that even after talent has been identified, it does not always bloom. We are, however, starting to do better.

You can see from the graph that upper-middle income countries are as good as turning their talent into results as high-income countries. Agarwal and Gaule also find some evidence that the low-income penalty is diminishing over time.

As incomes increase around the world it’s as if the entire world’s processing power is coming online for the first time in human history. That, at least, is one reason for optimism.

Hat tip: Floridan Ederer.


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