Academic journal article NBER Reporter

International Mobility of Research Scientists

Academic journal article NBER Reporter

International Mobility of Research Scientists

Article excerpt

In the United States, approximately half of all PhDs awarded in science and engineering go to the foreign born. (1) More than two-thirds of temporary residents who receive PhDs in science and engineering work in a research capacity while in graduate school. The proportion is over 80 percent in engineering. (2) Approximately 60 percent of postdoctoral fellows are in the U.S. on a temporary visa and approximately 42 percent of those with a doctoral degree working in a science and engineering occupation in the US were born outside the US. There is evidence that the foreign born contribute disproportionately to exceptional contributions in science and engineering and that highly productive scientists are even more mobile than the underlying scientific population. Despite the importance of the foreign born, it is difficult to make cross-country comparisons regarding their presence and role because of the absence of consistent data across countries. Most OECD countries, for example, collect data on recipients of tertiary degrees by immigration status, but the data do not distinguish between those with PhDs vs. other tertiary degrees; nor do they distinguish field of study. Moreover, most countries have an incomplete picture of the migration patterns of scientists born in their country because it is difficult to track individuals working outside their country of origin.

To provide consistent cross-country data on active researchers, my coauthors and I fielded the GlobSci survey of corresponding authors of articles published in 2009 in four fields of science: biology, chemistry, earth and environmental sciences, and materials. The fields were chosen in part because 95 percent or more of all articles published in these disciplines contain the corresponding author's email. We focused on researchers who were studying or working in one of 16 "core" countries: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, and US. China was initially included in the survey. However, a low response rate of less than 5 percent for a test sample of Chinese addresses suggested that respondents were either not receiving the invitation or had problems responding to the invitation. The response rate to the web-based survey, which was administered during the spring of 2011, was 40.6 percent. Country of origin was determined by asking the respondents to report country of residence at age 18.

Mobility Patterns of the Foreign Born

We find widely varying patterns of immigration and emigration for the 17,000-plus scientists for whom country of origin and country of residence in 2011 could be determined. (3) The country with the largest percent of PhD scientists who are immigrants was Switzerland (56.7); followed distantly by Canada (46.9); Australia (44.5) and then by the US (38.4). Virtually no foreign-born scientists reported working in India; only 3 percent of the research-active scientists in Italy and 5 percent in Japan are foreign. Immigrant scientists were asked to evaluate the importance of fourteen possible reasons for coming to work or study in their country of residence. Virtually no variation exists across country in response. The "opportunity to improve my future career prospects" and the presence of "outstanding faculty, colleagues or research team" trump all other reasons. Regardless of country, respondents list family reasons or fringe benefits last among reasons for coming to work or study in a foreign country.

Our approach provides information on emigration flows among core countries. We find Indians to be the most likely to emigrate--almost 40 percent of scientists living in India at age 18 were working outside the country at the time of the survey. Approximately one-third of Swiss scientists are outside their home country; the Netherlands and the UK have the next highest rate of emigration. The country with the lowest percent of emigrants is Japan (3 percent) but the US is a close second (5 percent). …

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