Policy ForumMigration

Immigrant patents boost growth

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Science  19 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6339, pp. 697
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan2468

There are lively debates in countries around the world as to how to stimulate economic growth and how much immigrants contribute to the economy. My research on the U.S. economy shows that skilled immigration increases patenting, which is likely to boost per capita economic growth. My analysis of self-reported patent activity in the National Survey of College Graduates, the only data source tying patentees to their birthplaces, shows that the foreign-born are twice as likely to patent as the native-born (1). Although 0.9% of college-educated natives have been awarded one or more patents in the past 5 years and 0.6% have been awarded a patent that has been licensed or commercialized, the figures for immigrants are 2.0% and 1.3%, respectively. Among patentees, natives and immigrants have similar numbers of patents. This immigrant patenting advantage has its origin in the educational background of immigrants, who are much more likely than natives to have studied physical sciences and engineering, fields strongly associated with patenting activity. Immigrants who first entered the United States on a student or trainee visa or on a temporary work visa are particularly likely to patent. However, immigrants' patenting advantage might not be fully reflected in overall national patenting activity if natives are deterred by immigration from entering the relevant fields of study and occupations. Alternatively, the immigrants' advantage could be magnified by collaborations and knowledge transfers, causing natives themselves to become more inventive. To study this, my coauthor and I used changing geographic variation in immigration (measured in the U.S. Census) and patenting activity (measured by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office) over several decades (2). The results show that immigration of college-educated individuals increases patenting per capita and is likely to have increased Gross Domestic Product per capita by 1.4 to 2.4 percentage points over a decade. A comparison of these results and the implied effect of the immigrant-native patenting gap at the individual level suggests that immigrants have increased the inventiveness of natives. The United States, and in particular its universities and employers, is successful in choosing skilled immigrants who boost economic growth per capita and should consider expanding the number of such immigrants admitted.

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