Sergey Brin, co-founder Google; Satya Nadella, head of Microsoft; Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood actress who, quite incredibly, was also a pioneering inventor behind Wi-Fi and bluetooth; Elon Musk; Chien-Shiung Wu, who helped America build the first atom bomb; Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone; James Naismith, the inventor of basketball; Nikola Tesla, one of the most important minds behind the creation of electricity and radio.
What do all these innovators have in common? They were all immigrants to the United States.
Many studies over the years have suggested that immigrants are vital to our nation’s technological and economic progress. Today, around a quarter of all workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are immigrants.
But while there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that immigrants play an important role in American innovation, a group of economists — Shai Bernstein, Rebecca Diamond, Abhisit Jiranaphawiboon, Timothy McQuade, and Beatriz Pousada — wanted to find a more precise estimate of how much immigrants contribute.
In a fascinating new working paper, the economists link patent records to more than 230 million Social Security numbers. With this incredible dataset, they are able to suss out who among patent-holders are immigrants (by cross-referencing their year of birth and the year they were assigned their Social Security number).
The economists find that, between 1990 and 2016, 16 percent of all US inventors were immigrants. More than that, they find that the “average immigrant is substantially more productive than the average US-born inventor.” Immigrant inventors produced almost a quarter of all patents during this period.