• 12 Sep 2007
  • Working Paper

The Ethnic Composition of U.S. Inventors

by William R. Kerr

Executive Summary — The contributions of immigrants to U.S. technology formation are staggering. While the foreign-born account for just over 10 percent of the U.S. working population, they represent 25 percent of the U.S. science and engineering workforce and nearly 50 percent of those with doctorates. Even looking within the Ph.D. level, ethnic researchers make an exceptional contribution to science as measured by Nobel Prizes, election to the National Academy of Sciences, patent citation counts, and so on. The magnitude of these ethnic contributions raises many research and policy questions: 4 examples are debates regarding the appropriate quota for H1-B temporary visas, the possible crowding out of native students from the science and engineering fields, the brain-drain or brain-circulation effect on sending countries, and the future prospects for U.S. technology leadership. This paper describes a new approach for quantifying the ethnic composition of U.S. inventors with previously unavailable detail. Key concepts include:

  • Ethnic scientists and engineers are an important and growing contributor to U.S. technology development. The rapidly increasing ethnic contribution in high-tech sectors is due to the strong growth of the Chinese and Indian ethnicities.
  • Shifts in the concentration of ethnic inventors appear to facilitate changes in the geographic composition of U.S. innovation.

Author Abstract

The ethnic composition of US scientists and engineers is undergoing a significant transformation. This study applies an ethnic-name database to individual patent records granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office to document these trends with greater detail than previously available. Most notably, the contributions of Chinese and Indian scientists to US technology formation increase dramatically in the 1990s, before noticeably leveling off after 2000 and declining in the case of India. Growth in ethnic innovation is concentrated in high-tech sectors; the institutional and geographic dimensions are further characterized.

Paper Information