After the Cold War: The Impact of Soviet Èmigrès on the Mathematics Academy

January 30, 2012
By Doug Gavel

The end of the Cold War brought great changes across the political and economic landscapes. But it also affected the academic world in significant ways.

In a new research paper titled "The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Productivity of American Mathematicians," which is to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Professors George J. Borjas of Harvard Kennedy School and Kirk B. Doran of the University of Notre Dame examine the impact made by the emigration of Soviet mathematicians to the United States and other countries.

"Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was little collaboration and only infrequent exchanges between Soviet and Western mathematicians," the authors write. "After the collapse of the Soviet Union, over 1,000 Soviet mathematicians migrated to other countries, with a large fraction settling in the United States. In addition, the mathematicians who remained in the Soviet Union became part of the globalized publications market in mathematics."

Borjas and Doran analyzed a spectrum of data relating to academic publications and citations and the production of so-called "home run" breakthroughs in the field. They report several key findings:

  • The typical American mathematician whose research overlapped with the Soviets suffered a reduction in productivity after the collapse of the Soviet Union;
  • Many American mathematicians switched institutions following the migration, most often to a less prestigious academy;
  • A large percentage of American mathematicians thereby also ceased publishing relatively early in their career, and became much less likely to produce a "home run" research breakthrough;
  • And although the total academic output declined for the pre-existing group of American mathematicians, the difference was made up by the contribution of Soviet èmigrès.

"Our empirical evidence does not support the conjecture that the Soviet influx generated substantial positive externalities for the pre-existing mathematics workforce," the authors conclude. "We do not believe this finding arises because American mathematicians did not gain new ideas from the Soviet influx. Rather, we interpret the evidence as suggesting that there may be surprisingly resilient constraints that can counteract those gains."

George J. Borjas is the Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Economics and Social Policy. He received his PhD in economics from Columbia. His teaching and research interests focus on the impact of government regulations on labor markets, with an emphasis on the economic impact of immigration. He is the author of Wage Policy in the Federal Bureaucracy; Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy; Heaven’s Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy; and the textbook Labor Economics.

George Borjas headshot

George Borjas, Robert W. Scrivner Professor of Economics and Social Policy

"Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was little collaboration and only infrequent exchanges between Soviet and Western mathematicians," the authors write.


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