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Educated, Hard-Working Immigrants Are America's Biggest Innovators: Study

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Findings of a new study challenge the popular notion that it’s young, tech-savvy, college dropouts forming a Silicon Valley startup that drive innovation in America. It turns out that immigrants could be playing a more important role.

More than one-third – or 35.5 percent – of U.S. innovators through STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) were born outside the country, according to a report released last Wednesday by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). This is despite the immigrant population making up a mere 13.5 percent of all U.S. residents.

Immigrant innovators emerge as better educated than native-born one on average, with more than two-thirds having doctorates in STEM. Those born in Europe and Asia were also over five times more likely than the native-born American citizen to have spurred innovation.

These findings come on the heels of the heated immigration discussion, an ongoing debate about the H1-B skilled worker visa program in the presidential campaign.

The study is based on a survey of 923 individuals who achieved significant awards for innovations or applied for global patents.

The median age at which these people brought innovations – 47 years old – also appears to debunk the renowned image of the Great American Innovator.

“The idea that these guys just drop out of college and do amazing things in their 20s – that’s really not the norm,” says ITIF President and report co-author Robert Atkinson in an interview, citing that nearly 60 percent had a Ph.D. in one of the four fields.

In the report, women and minorities also surfaced as notably underrepresented, representing only 12 percent and 8 percent of innovators. The share of foreign-born women innovators were 5 percent bigger than U.S.-born ones, while African Americans – while comprising 13 percent of the native born U.S. population – make up a mere 0.5 percent of U.S. born innovators.

The surveyed individuals pointed out fund insufficiency, market forces, and government regulatory constraints as factors slowing or preventing commercialization.

On the other hand, large companies are hailed as most important contributors here, with about 60 percent of private-sector innovations originating from firms with over 500 employees.

The report made two policy recommendations: “do a better job” enabling women and minorities to obtain STEM degrees, and expand and fortify the immigration pipeline paving the way for highly trained STEM people to perform well in America. These include foreign STEM graduates having a hard time staying legally in the country.

Photo: Savannah River Site | Flickr

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