Considerable attention has focused in recent years on the role the academy plays in fostering innovation. Here we demonstrate that the foreign born are a large and growing component of the U.S. university community. They compose more than 25% of the tenure‐track faculty, make up approximately 60% of the postdoctoral population, and represent more than 43% of the doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering. Almost 50% of the latter come from the three countries of China, India, and South Korea.
The foreign born contribute to the productivity of the university. For example, 44% of the first authors of U.S. papers in Science are foreign. There is some evidence that the foreign born contribute disproportionately to exceptional contributions in science and engineering and, at least at elite universities, that their marginal product is higher than that of the native born. They also constitute approximately one‐third of the placements of new PhDs with U.S. firms—a major mechanism by which tacit knowledge is transmitted from the university to industry.
Not all of the foreign born who come to study or work in the United States stay. The 10‐year stay rate for those who received their PhDs, for example, is 58%. It increased dramatically in the 1990s, but the pattern appears to have leveled off recently and is likely to decline as developing countries recruit scientists and engineers to work in newly emerging sectors as well as universities. Despite spillovers to other countries, the simplest of calculations leads one to conclude that in the past the United States has gained far more than it has lost by the foreign born coming to study and work in science and engineering at U.S. universities.
Whether these benefits persist depends upon whether the foreign born continue to come in large numbers and to stay in large numbers. The stimulus package and President Obama’s proposed 2010 budget, with its funds for R&D, provide resources that could encourage studying and working in the United States. They also provide for resources that could make careers in science and engineering more appealing to the native born, something that will be essential if the foreign born cease to come or stay.