The Russian Math Deluge
THE SOURCE: “The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Productivity of American Mathematicians” by George J. Borjas and Kirk B. Doran, in The NBER Digest, June 2012.
Well-educated immigrants are almost always considered a net positive for the U.S. economy, especially if they work in the fields of math, science, or engineering. Economists George J. Borjas of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Kirk B. Doran of the University of Notre Dame say that this equation is far from straightforward, at least judging from the case of mathematicians who immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 caused a deluge of emigration, particularly among the highly educated. One thousand mathematicians picked up and left their troubled homeland, with about a third settling in the United States. Like many Soviet professionals, mathematicians had been prohibited from exchanging ideas with their colleagues beyond the Iron Curtain. As a result, Soviet mathematics had developed deeply in some areas while veering away from topics that were popular in the United States. The arrival of this unique breed created a stir. One Harvard mathematician told The New York Times, “It’s been fantastic. You just have a totally fresh set of insights and results.”
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