Skilled Migrants’ Contribution to Innovation

What is the contribution of skilled migrants to the innovation capacity of the host country?

Project Summary

The current refugee crisis has become a focus of the media, the public and policymakers alike. The academic community is also paying increased attention to migration-related issues. The economis literature has presented as evidence that immigration and global labour mobility have considerable effect on dimensions such as labour markets, innovation, productivity spillovers, and public finance.

The current political debate is characterised by the coexistence of rigid opposing views of those who consider immigration as a burden for the host economy and those who instead regard immigration as an opportunity. This, unfortunately, overshadows the less controversial, but beneficial, effect of skilled migration. Skilled migration offers an opportunity for boosting innovation, which is a key driver of economic growth. Policymakers around the world are aware of this opportunity and have adopted policies to attract skilled migrants. Despite the emphasis placed on attracting and retaining high-skilled immigrants, academic research on the effect of skilled immigrants on their host country’s economy is relatively sparse.

The overall objective of this project is to advance knowledge-based evidence on skilled migrants and their contribution to the host country’s innovative capacity. The project will provide a global view – in contrast to existing studies, which mainly focus on the United States. It will concentrate on a specific category of skilled workers that is directly relevant for innovation, namely inventors. The research findings will have a wider application in contributing to the policy dialogue on migration and innovation.

Academic Output

Executive Summary

The overall objective of this project was to address, in a novel way, the question of whether, and how, skilled migrants affect the host country innovative capacity. The project has first provided a detailed descriptive overview of the international mobility of inventors, identifying the main receiving and sending countries. Second, on the basis of this new knowledge, it has studied the extent to which migration is associated with greater individual productivity. Third, it has analysed the relationship between high- skilled immigration and host country innovative capacity. In order to accomplish these research tasks, the project has been divided into three specific Working Packages (WP). In what follows, we present a brief overview of the different working packages, by describing the specific aim, the results obtained and the research methods used. We then offer some conclusions on the whole of this research.

Working Paper

Immigration and Inventor Productivity

This paper studies the relationship between migration and the productivity of high- skilled workers, as captured by inventors listed in patent applications. Using machine learning techniques to uniquely identify inventors across patents, we are able to track, for the first time, the worldwide migration patterns of nearly one million individual inventors. The econometric analysis seeks to explain the recurring finding in the literature that migrant inventors are more productive than non-migrant inventors. We investigate whether the e↵ect of migration is the selection of inventors with high ability or whether migration per se boosts productivity. We find that migrant inventors were indeed intrinsically more productive than non-migrant inventors before the move (selection e↵ect) but they also became all the more productive after migration (boost e↵ect). We estimate that about 85% of the productivity di↵erence is explained by post-move productivity increase and the remaining 15% is explained by selection. We explore the policy implications of this finding. The disambiguated inventor data are openly available to encourage follow-on research.

Working Paper

International Mobility of Inventors and Innovation: Empirical Evidence from the Collapse of the Soviet Union

This paper assesses the extent to which the international migration of inventors affects innovation in the receiving country. We exploit a new database that maps migratory patterns of inventors across all technology fields. We draw on the end of Soviet Union and the consequent post-1992 influx of ex-Soviet inventors in the United States. Econometric analysis on a panel of U.S. cities and technological fields shows that the propensity to patent by local inventors increases significantly after the arrival of ex-Soviet Union inventors. Interestingly, the positive impact of migrant inventors is only observed in physics.

Research Team

Gaétan de Rassenfosse
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Orion Penner
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Gabriele Pellegrino
Principal Member
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Carsten Fink
Associated Member
World Intellectual Property Organisation

Caglar Ozden
Associated Member
World Bank Group

Paul H. Jensen
Associated Member
University of Melbourne

Etienne Piguet
Associated Member
Université de Neuchâtel

Julio Raffo
Associated Member
World Intellectual Property Organisation





Policy domains



All countries

Host Institution