How High-Skill Immigration Affects Science: Evidence from the Collapse of the USSR

George J. Borjas, Kirk B. Doran

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Chapter in forthcoming NBER book Innovation Policy and the Economy, Volume 15, William R. Kerr, Josh Lerner and Scott Stern, editors
Conference held April 8, 2014
Forthcoming from University of Chicago Press
in NBER Book Series Innovation Policy and the Economy

A commonly cited reason for increasing high-skill immigration to the United States is the perceived positive impact that such immigrants would have on the course of U.S. science. While it is true that scientific research is particularly important for long-term economic wellbeing, and while it is also true that immigrants have historically accounted for a disproportionate share of U.S. scientific output, the causal impact of an increase in the number of high-skill immigrants on U.S. science is not obvious. An influx of new knowledge and knowledge-generating workers may generate knowledge spillovers: the productivity-enhancing peer effects that must be present if high-skill immigration is to have beneficial long-run effects. However, scientists must also compete for scarce resources such as jobs, journal space, and attention, in order for their research to be produced, disseminated, and used. This paper reviews the evidence we report in recent work (Borjas and Doran 2012, 2014) that simultaneously addresses both of these conflicting forces. The research uses the "natural experiment" created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to the largest sudden influx of scientific personnel and ideas into the United States since World War II. In this context, there is little evidence of improved productivity among pre-existing scientists after a sizable supply and idea shock.

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This paper was revised on April 23, 2014

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