Born in the USSR

Boris Yeltsin might not have served on any tenure committees, but he may have affected the productivity and careers of American mathematicians, study finds.

February 9, 2012

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant the end of the Cold War, the dismantling of Lenin statues, and the near-disappearance of the schlocky Soviet stereotype in a certain kind of Hollywood movie. It also resulted in a migration of Soviet scholars, which greatly affected the field of mathematics in the United States, according to two professors who have co-authored a paper called “The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Productivity of American Mathematicians” to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

George J. Borjas, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and Kirk B. Doran, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, said in their paper that the influx of Soviet mathematicians into the U.S. beginning in 1992 affected the productivity of domestic math scholars when their research overlapped, and may have contributed to many American-born math scholars moving away from research areas where the Soviets were stronger. Their research, which looked at a data set that includes every paper published in math over the last 70 years, also found that the migrants from U.S.S.R. helped filled gaps in knowledge in their areas of expertise. The study provides insights into the increasingly global market for scholarly talent.

The appearance of these Soviet professors – there were 336 of them, according to the paper -- was not evenly distributed across mathematics subfields, because the development of the discipline followed its own insular pattern in the U.S.S.R. There was almost no interaction between mathematicians in the two countries before the fall of Communism, and anyone in the Soviet Union who tried to communicate with a scholar in the U.S. risked attention from the KGB and arrest. This insularity lead to some peculiar concentrations and strengths: there were many Soviet-produced papers in the subfield of integral equations, but only a small number in statistics.

After 1992, subfields in mathematics with strong Soviet concentrations were challenged and enriched by the competition, but there were entire areas in the discipline that were not disturbed.

“First, the likelihood of a competing [American] mathematician producing a ‘home run’ paper fell significantly. Similarly, marginal mathematicians became much more likely to move to lower-quality institutions and to exit knowledge production altogether,” the paper says. “We also find evidence that the students of the Soviet émigré had higher lifetime productivity than other students from the same institution who had non-émigré advisers. However, this gain was more than offset by the productivity loss suffered by students who had American advisers with Soviet-like research programs.”

The authors said they did not know of other disciplinary areas that might have been similarly affected by Soviet Union’s dismantling and noted the strength of the former superpower when it came to the mathematical sciences. The Soviet scholars were quite exceptional and were “highly positively selected,” Borjas said. “With this influx, something had to give, and American mathematicians were heavily impacted by this."

The ripple effect, according to Borjas: a generation of U.S.-born math scholars who are not well-placed academically. “They stopped publishing earlier, they might have even left the field altogether,” he said. The problem he said, was that the academic labor market in mathematics could not keep up with the sudden influx. “They were competing with more people, and the number of jobs did not increase that much,” he said.

But the migration helped scholars tackle complicated problems and fill areas where knowledge was lacking. The paper quotes from a 1990 New York Times article where Persi Diaconis, a mathematician at Harvard, was able to solve a problem that had stumped him for 20 years, because of help from a Soviet expert.

But the arrival of such talent led to increased competition in the hiring process.  According to an American Mathematical Society survey, citizens from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union made up 15 percent of tenured and tenure-eligible new hires in 1991-92.

Although most of the impact from that wave of immigration may have already been seen, Doran said the migration helped produce better ideas, and the students of the Soviet faculty members have tended to do well. “They produce good students. The effects are long-lasting because of the effects of potential advisers,” he said.

The research raises the question, Borjas said, of whether high-skilled immigrants are beneficial to a country’s economy or not. Borjas has been a controversial figure to pro-immigrant groups who say he is anti-immigrant, and his research has sometimes thrust him into the polarized national debate.

“I think there is a really important intellectual question involved in all this, both in my past work and this paper. How do labor markets react to the influx of new workers? In the current context, the question is even more interesting because it involves new workers and new ideas,” Borjas said. In his view, there were two notable issues going on with the Soviet arrivals: a spillover of ideas that made the profession more productive, and completion among mathematicians “who just coincidentally happened to be doing Soviet-style math at the time.”

Doran said the authors had started with a hypothesis that the migration would lead to more research and papers by American scholars, but they found that the number of papers produced by the Americans actually decreased though it was offset by similar gains by the Soviet scholars. “The externalities were not big enough to compete against the downward forces,” he said meaning that the new skills and talent, though beneficial to a certain extent, also led to more competition for jobs.


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