Innovation and Migration: a Gift to the West “1 of 2”


(On having a cake and eating it too)


Immigration waves to Western countries are not only ‘manageable’ (i.e. in terms of sufficient space and resources to accept immigrants); rather, they continuously bring advances in innovation, knowledge and wealth regeneration, keeping the West leading the most important sectors in modern global economy. Progressive arguments that say the West has a moral responsibility towards immigrants only tell half the story. The West benefits from immigration in critical and measurable ways. Ironically, if migration is bad news it is so only for the rest of the world, as brain drain migration relocates many individuals of critical knowledge and skills from developing societies, where they are more needed, to developed industrialized societies.


We know that modern civilization in North America was made by immigrants who kept coming over generations and took the land from the indigenous peoples. We also know that modern Europe accumulated its wealth from colonization and the exploitation of the natural resources and human labour of other continents; a trend that started before, during and after the industrial revolution which could not have objectively happened without such exploitation (even while assuming, for the sake of argument, that the technological and scientific innovation that sparked and established the industrial revolution was independent of the said exploitative economic conditions of the time). These historical facts remain to be important to know whenever we seek to analyze modern global economics and politics.

Yet these historical facts alone do not relay the full reality. For example, they do not stop some folks from taking exception to European migration to North America by claiming that Europeans are the ones that championed, and are championing, the modern civilization project that makes North America attractive to other immigrants. Even when speaking of slavery, some people entertain the thought – or even vocalize it – that while many immigrants (and slaves) provided the ‘muscle’ Europeans were always the ones to provide ‘the brain’ of the industrialization and modernization project in this part of the world, without which the muscles would not have made a significant difference anyway.

These claims extend up to this day. Emigrants from other parts of the world to North America (with exception to ones from Europe) are seen, by some folks, as ones that are coming to benefit from the achievements of early European migrants in ‘the new world’. Since North Americans who are already here would like to enjoy the wealth, relative safety and relative liberties (i.e. compared to most other parts of the world) it wouldn’t make sense for them to keep welcoming new migrants with open arms. Large numbers of people from the North American middle and working classes seem to sincerely believe that accepting more migrants will deteriorate the living conditions of those who are already here. Many taxpayers also seem to sincerely believe that their states will be spending resources on sheltering and feeding the newcomers instead of using those resources for maintaining and improving public services, and also believe that migrants render the local economy in a bad shape as they grossly consume more than they produce. Some also argue that even when some of these migrants actually work they lower standards of work and threaten the job security of “locals” (i.e. older immigrants).

What has been clarified, and needs to be reiterated time and again, is that all these claims, above, are objectively false. Their falsity has been proven by the same data that speak to their concerns. I will reference some of that data below, but I would also like to highlight one particular aspect that, in my opinion, makes all the difference.

It has been rightly said, by American physicist and educator Neil deGrasse Tyson, that “innovations in science and technology are the engines of the 21st century economy.” [1] This is an obvious reality. The world in which we live today, in any part of it, is wholly encompassed by technological existence; i.e. the tools, machines, artefacts and facilities that are the product of innovations in science and technology, in various degrees. This is the reality everywhere in the world today, even in those parts where there are less complex, less affluent and less resource-intensive technologies. As put by another physicist and educator, Ursula Franklin, “Technology has built the house which we all live in.” [2] Unlike former times in human history, there is very little chance for any of us nowadays in living outside that house for any considerable length of time. Therefore it matters very much today to ask: who makes this technology? Who innovates science and technology today, and where are they located?

So far there is a legitimate claim that most of those who make, remake and innovate technology and science, are currently concentrated on the Northern hemisphere. More particularly in parts of the world that are globally referred to as the West (and Western Civilization). They mainly include North America, Western Europe and Australia. There are other places around the world today that are big hubs of innovation, such as China and Japan (and we can nowadays also speak of India, Brazil, and the Asian Tigers) but the West still holds the lead, so far. After all the nuance and political politeness is removed what remains is the core of the claim: that the West is the best, and it rules the world because it leads the world in the making, remaking and innovation of science and technology—the true marks of intelligence and superiority among humans. The West, as known, is inherently the creation of Europeans and European descendants. That is why ‘Western culture’ which has given us the best humanity can offer today shall remain celebrated, and shall remain robust and free from being mixed too much with other ‘lesser’ cultures and traditions that do not equally celebrate scientific knowledge, innovative free thinking, and social values of a truly civilized life. That is why North America, Western Europe and Australia shall be very careful in selecting the quantity and quality of who migrates to them from the rest of the world. The rest of the world should be more and more influenced by the West instead of the other way around. There it is, the claim, without any cosmetics.

What this article will seek to clarify is that this claim, above, is simply inaccurate. It does not hold truth nowadays, if it held some a while back for a finite phase in history. The evidence-based argument of this article is that continuous waves of migration to the West – with focus on data from the USA as an example – positively correlate with the continuous advances of both wealth, on the one hand, and STI (Science, Technology & Innovation) on the other hand. This positive correlation shows, in more detail, that the continuous waves of migration to North America are one major reason for the continuous advances in wealth and, more importantly, STI in that region. Innovations in Science and Technology in the West are no longer led by ‘Westerners’ but by the collective forces of statistically diverse societies, in general, and with significant contribution from immigrants.

What the Data Says

An elaborate study was published in a report in 2010 by the Brookings Institution on ‘Economic Facts about Immigration’. [3] The study investigated what the data says about the reality of the economic impacts of continuous waves of immigration to the USA. It investigated what immigrants take, when they come to the USA, what they give back to the country, and also where they generally end up in the fabric of American society. The report itself is fully available online, but I’m going to focus on particular two areas: what immigrants contribute to innovations and advances in science and technology, and what immigrants contribute to the cumulate wealth of the USA.

Consider this: If you put first-generation immigrants to the USA on one side, and put the entire country’s population on the other side (including second-generation folks who were born and raised by the first-generation immigrants) you will find that:
– In terms of advanced academic education (assumedly a good indicator of advanced knowledge and skills in modernized societies), the percentage of PhD holders among immigrants (1.9%) is almost twice that of the entire USA-born population (1.1%). At the level of Master’s degrees, immigrants and USA-born citizens have a similar percentage. Overall, while only 12% of the USA population are first-generation immigrants, 11% of them hold an advanced degree (above a bachelor’s degree), “slightly above the fraction of [USA born] Americans with post-college degrees.”
– With their advanced degrees, foreign-born university graduates in the USA show stronger indicators of innovation than the rest of the USA population: immigrants are 3 times more likely to file for patents than USA-born Americans. And out of each 10,000 graduate students in American universities, about 1,100 foreign-born are granted patents while less than 400 USA-born are.
– Additionally, and overall, the entrepreneurial spirit – which goes along well with the innovative spirit – of immigrants is also higher than USA-born citizens. Estimates are that about 350 businesses are registered monthly in the USA by immigrants compared to about 270 by USA-born Americans.

The data above shows that new immigrants are leading participants in the innovation-driven economy of the USA. They proliferate on both the knowledge-production side and the business-growing side, and they often do so as leaders, despite their smaller percentage compared to the entire USA population.

Furthermore, another study by the Brookings Institution found that over 42% of foreign students in USA colleges and universities, in bachelor or higher degree programs, are enrolled in degree programs of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and many others are also studying in the business fields. About 45% of them find jobs within the USA economy and work there after graduation, at least for a while (needless to say a good proportion of them later seek to continue living and working the USA).[4]

Another recent study, published in the Harvard Business Review[5] , on ‘How diversity drives innovation’ asserts that companies which employ a more diverse workforce “out-innovate and out-perform others” and are more likely to report growth in their market share and capturing new markets. [6] The explanation for that is simple: groups of more diverse backgrounds have more diverse perspectives and generate more diverse ideas, leading to more innovations. It is also no surprise that the leading cities in the world today in the innovation economy are overall among the most multicultural cities in the world as well. [7] The findings from all these studies mentioned consolidate well and give a more comprehensive and confirmed picture.

Even more interesting is when we look at the overall impact of immigration on the public budget of the USA—According to the official statistics consulted by the Brooking Institution, taken from the US Census Bureau, first-generation immigrant households, overall, pay more taxes than the cost of public services all immigrants use. That is not even withstanding how much they contribute to sustaining the national market as consumers of goods and services.

The above indicators should also be considered with other realities: that immigration to the USA now is more diverse than it has ever been before—i.e. recent immigrants are coming from more diverse backgrounds than before. And often these recent waves of migration break many stereotypes. For example, a census study by the US Census Bureau, between the years 2008-2012, found that “Compared with the overall foreign-born population, the foreign-born from Africa had higher levels of educational attainment”. [8] That is, if considered as one group, immigrants from Africa are the most formally educated among all immigrants from the rest of the world.

Could we say then that it seems that the USA gains more advances in innovation, knowledge and wealth from the continuous waves of immigration? That the USA would not be in the current high standing, compared to the rest of the world, in terms of flowing generation of innovations in science and technology, and economic growth, without immigrants? I think we could.


*Gussai H. Sheikheldin is a scholar of technology and institutions (in societies and in economies). His interdisciplinary academic and career profilecombines engineering, public policy and sustainable development. Native of Sudanic Africa and resident of North America, he writes on academic and public platforms in both English and Arabic. Twitter: @GussaiHS. Email: g.hamror@gmail.com



[1] Video on Tech Insider: “Neil deGrasse Tyson has a problem with all the US presidential candidates”. October 16, 2015 on: http://www.techinsider.io/neil-degrasse-tyson-politics-presidential-election-debates-2015-10

[2] Ursula Franklin, 1989. The Real World of Technology. CBC Massey lectures, Tuesday, November 7th. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-1989-cbc-massey-lectures-the-real-world-of-technology-1.2946845

[3] Michael Greenstone & Adam Looney (2010). “Ten Economic Facts about Immigration.” Report by the Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution, USA.http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2010/9/immigration-greenstone-looney/09_immigration.pdf

[4] Neil G. Ruiz (2014). “The Geography of Foreign Students in U.S. Higher Education: Origins and Destinations”. Brookings Institution Website: http://www.brookings.edu/research/interactives/2014/geography-of-foreign-students#/M10420

[5] Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin (2013). “How Diversity can Drive Innovation.” Harvard Business Review, December Issue.

[6]Diversity was measured, in this study, in two dimensions: inherent and acquired attributes, and the included both ethnicity and work experience in other countries.

[7] Innovation Cities Index 2014, top 20 cities leading the global innovation economy: http://www.innovation-cities.com/media-release-innovation-cities-index-2014-launch/8913#data_tables

[8] Christine P. Gambino, Edward N. Trevelyan & John Thomas Fitzwater (2014). “The Foreign-Born Population from Africa: 2008–2012.” American Community Survey Briefs. US Census Bureau: ACSBR/12-16. (pg. 9).https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/acs/acsbr12-16.pdf