A New Look at Immigrants’ Outsize Contribution to Innovation in the U.S.
A study by Stanford University reports that foreign-born inventors generate a disproportionate share of patents — and make their U.S.-born collaborators more productive. While we cannot locate a comparable body of research in Canada, the empirical evidence points to the same trends and outcomes here.
Stanford researchers looked at the output of nearly 880,000 Americans who patented inventions between 1990 and 2016. They found that immigrants made an outsize contribution to innovation in the U.S. While they comprised 16% of inventors, immigrants were behind 23% of the patents issued over these years.
It wasn’t just a matter of quantity: The share of patents immigrants produced was slightly higher when weighted by the number of citations each patent received over the next three years, a key measure of their quality and utility. Moreover, immigrants were responsible for a quarter of the total economic value of patents granted in that period, as measured by the stock market’s reaction to new patents.
The high-skilled immigrants are incredibly productive and innovative, and they’re disproportionately contributing to innovation in our society.
Past research has indirectly pointed to the sizable 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 and more than a quarter of the nation’s Nobel Prize winners.
The researchers found 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, a disparity that remains unexplained.
The researchers observed that foreign-born inventors are more likely to work with inventors based in other countries and cite foreign technologies in their patents. Different pools of knowledge get imported by immigration, and diversity in background is good for innovation.
Immigrant inventors’ contributions go beyond their own work — they also make their native-born collaborators more productive, the researchers discovered. It seems there’s something special about being an immigrant. Their knowledge has these huge external effects on who they work with, and what they know impacts what their collaborators can produce in the future.