China

To Remain Tops in Innovation, the U.S. Needs Immigration Reform


China is producing ever more science and technology graduates and climbing the global rankings in patent applications

Photograph by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

China is producing ever more science and technology graduates and climbing the global rankings in patent applications

(Updated with links to reports and papers referenced.)

As China’s economy catches up with America’s in pure size, it’s worth asking whether China will eventually assume the top spot when it comes to innovation as well. The U.S. retains a strong global lead in research and new inventions, in large part because the U.S. continues to attract innovators from the world over—including from China. But to stay on top, the U.S. needs immigration reform that makes it easier for scientists and technology developers to come and stay in the country.

China is churning out ever more science and technology graduates and climbing the global rankings in patent applications. By 2004 it was the fifth-largest producer of academic scientific publications—behind only the U.K., Germany, Japan, and the U.S. And in 2011, China’s ZTE (000063:CH) alone made 2,826 international patent filings—the most of any company in the world.

More global innovation is a good thing for everyone—so there’s no reason to fear China’s increasing technological heft. Regardless, that heft is still a fraction of America’s. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the U.S. is still first by a big margin in terms of widely cited articles—a measure of the quality of research. China ranks 17th. Per dollar of gross domestic product, the U.S. produces more than six times China’s number of patents that are filed in at least three different countries, which is an indicator of marketable innovation.

In 2012, China earned $1 billion in foreign royalty and license payments—this for intellectual property the country had created that was being exploited by companies elsewhere. Meanwhile, it paid $18 billion in royalty and license payments to foreign firms, for a total deficit of $17 billion. Compare that with the U.S., which ran a $82 billion surplus.

A new paper co-authored by Carsten Fink, chief economist of WIPO, suggests one big reason for the U.S.’s continued lead: The country remains a magnet for global innovators. Fink’s paper studies patent applications filed under WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty, which records more than half of all international applications and lists the residence and nationality of the inventors of more than 4 million patents. Using that data, Fink and his colleague Ernest Miguelez found that in 2010 about 10 percent of inventors worldwide lived outside their country of nationality when making their international patent application. The proportion of international patent applications made from the U.S. by non-nationals was twice as high—around 20 percent. That proportion approximately doubled from 1985 to 2010, and it’s the highest share out of any large economy. It compares with a non-national share of international patent applications of about 2 percent in Japan and closer to 5 percent in Germany and France.

The U.S. is by far the biggest global net beneficiary of innovator migration. Between 2001 and 2010, 14,893 inventors with U.K. nationality applied for international patents while residing in the U.S., for example. And there were three times as many Chinese inventors in the U.S. than British ones. That illustrates the U.S. has done particularly well in attracting innovative talent from the developing world—more than half of the U.S. non-national innovator population comes from countries outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development club of rich countries.

Still, recent trends are disturbing. Duke University’s Vivek Wadhwa reports that the proportion of high-tech startups founded by Chinese and Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley dropped from 52 percent in 2005 to 44 percent in 2011, in part because more and more Indian and Chinese graduates of U.S. universities are returning home rather than dealing with the hassle of American immigration procedures. The U.S. is becoming less attractive to the very people who help power the U.S. innovation economy.

America has benefited phenomenally from importing innovative talent from the rest of the world. But if it wants to continue to do so, making immigration less painful is a vital step. The Senate-approved immigration reform bill includes a provision that would almost triple the number of H-1B visas for high-skilled workers available each year—one important part of the solution. And that’s one more reason Republican leadership in the House needs to show the courage to put comprehensive immigration reform to the vote.

Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Great for the West.

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