Dr. Norm Matloff On The “Foreign Inventors” Study Hyped By Industry And The WSJ

Dr. Norm Matloff writes to his email list

I have quite a few items I`ve been hoping to post to this e-newsletter, just no time to do so. However, there is a new patent study that the proponents of expanded H-1B and green card programs are splashing so much all over the press that I need to comment.

I`ve written about patent studies before, but this study is slightly different in that it concentrates on universities. The study is summarized in the following passage from the Wall Street Journal

In 2011, 76% of patents awarded to the top 10 patent-producing American universities had at least one foreign-born inventor, according to the report.[Foreign Inventors Have Hand in Most Patents From Top Universities, By Daniel Lippman, June 27, 2012]

The implication is that the foreign graduate students and post docs at U.S. schools are especially innovative.

Even though the venue of the study is new, the usual comments apply:

1. Since there are large numbers of foreign nationals at U.S. universities, it is natural that a large number of them have their names on patents produced by those schools. It does not mean that the foreigners are more innovative than the American students and post docs.

2. The phrase “at least one foreign-born inventor” is quite slippery. If just one foreigner is listed, together with say 7 Americans, the study counts this patent at “foreign.”

Just to do a rough probability analysis: Say every patent lists 5 names, and that 30% of the university research population is foreign. If the nationalities of the 5 inventors were independent random variables, the probability of having at least 1 foreign inventor among the 5 would be 83%, huge compared to the 30%–exactly the kind of misleading statistic the PR people who wrote the study want to present.

I`ve written often that the reason there are so many foreign students in these grad programs is basically H-1B: H-1B draws in the foreign students, hoping for a job after graduation; the influx suppresses wages, causing America`s best and brightest to avoid STEM careers. An influential National Science Foundation position paper predicted this 20 years ago, and it proved quite prophetic.

My own recent research found that the former foreign students, now working in industry, are actually LESS likely to produce a patent than are Americans of the same age, education etc., in the fields of computer science and electrical engineering.

So, the less innovative are displacing the more innovative, a net loss.

An alert reader pointed me to a recent NIH meeting that is of great significance. This will be the subject of my next posting here, hopefully in a day or so.


The study that the WSJ links to is Patent Pending: How Immigrants are Reinventing the American Economy, published by the Partnership for a New American Economy. I had never heard of the Partnership for a New American Economy before, but I could tell by looking at it that it`s a typical tech industry/Treason Lobby in-the-tank  “think tank” of the kind Tamar Jacoby runs.

Here`s their “About Us” page, which names such co-chairs as Steve Ballmer, hotelier Bill Marriott, and the guy who runs Boeing, as well as various mayors who`ve been reading Richard Florida. Everyone on the list seems to be either a mayor or a billionaire, except Michael Bloomberg, who is both.