Economics: the links between migration and innovation

International Migrants Day took place on the 18th December. An opportunity to discuss recent research by Francesco Lissoni, professor-researcher in economic science at the University of Bordeaux and guest professor at two overseas universities. His research topic concerns the link between the migration of highly qualified individuals and innovation in their home and host countries.

  • 07/01/2019

© Montri / Fotolia © Montri / Fotolia

Francesco Lissoni, professor of economic sciences at the Faculty of Economics, Management and ESA at the University of Bordeaux, is also a researcher in the economics and geography of innovation and science. He has been granted a research sabbatical to visit the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Center for Transformative Innovation (CTI) at Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia. These two universities are located in countries that are heavily dependent on migrants for the survival of innovative industries and the higher education system. 

Human migration has always played a key role in the international dissemination of technical and scientific knowledge. The Huguenots fleeing France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes contributed to the development of the textile industry in Prussia and to the birth of Swiss watchmaking. The Jewish chemists expelled from German universities during the Nazi period gave the United States technological leadership in industrial chemicals which continues today. More recently, the Russian scientists and technicians who emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union played an important role in Israel’s high-tech “miracle”.

However, highly-qualified migrants only encourage innovation by transferring knowledge from more advanced countries to those countries seeking this knowledge. The major American, British and German companies and universities attract a significant proportion of young researchers and students from China, India and eastern Europe to undertake their research and development projects. In the USA for example, overseas-born residents account for less than 20% of the workforce, but nearly 30% of those employed in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Questions that remain open

After the Second World War, British scientists coined the expression “brain drain” to describe the migration of their colleagues to the USA, attracted by the research facilities offered to them by the American universities. Later, this expression was adopted to describe the migration of graduates from less well-developed countries that had decided to invest in education in order to climb out of poverty only to find themselves deprived of the human capital thus created. More recently, economic research has been seeking to establish whether, at least in part, this “brain drain is not compensated for by a “brain gain resulting from individual incentives to invest more in higher education, given the migratory opportunities that it provides. Research is also looking at the links maintained by highly-qualified migrants with their countries of origin and the role that they play in knowledge transfer, opening up to international markets and return migration.

As far as destination countries are concerned, researchers are also looking into the value of the cultural diversity that STEM migrants bring to the teams of scientists and engineers engaged in innovative projects, as well as the regions and cities in which they tend to be concentrated.

International Migrants Day

“International Migrants Day" takes place on the 18th December. It provides an opportunity to dispel prejudices and to make people better aware of migrants’ economic, cultural and social contributions that benefit both their home and host countries.

Source: United Nations