Foreign-born inventors generate a disproportionate share of patents — and make their U.S.-born collaborators more productive.
While immigrants comprised 16% of U.S. inventors, they were behind 23% of the patents issued over 26 years. | Reuters/Lucas Jackson
The United States has long touted itself as a nation built by immigrants. Yet there has never been a precise measure of immigrants’ contribution to the country’s economic and technological progress. Around the time that President Donald Trump was moving to curb employment visas for skilled foreigners, economist Rebecca Diamond and a team of researchers set out to examine this unresolved question.
To find the answer, the 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.