Immigrant Superstars

In my last post, on the NAS conference, I did not mention the survey paper , “International Migration and U.S. Innovation,” by Bill Kerr.   He gives a good, careful overview of the research literature in the field, for example taking care to point out that some of the papers were “done for advocacy purposes.”  One small quibble is that he uses the doubt-inducing word claim for my work, while using the approving word find for all the other papers he cites, including his own. 🙂  Kerr finds, Peri finds, etc., but Matloff only claims.  Ouch!

Bill begins his Conclusions section with this:

Immigrants are of deep importance to U.S. innovation. This is most evident in terms of their sheer quantity for STEM work in the United States, and the disproportionate number of superstars who are immigrants speak to this.

Regular readers of this blog know that although I’ve often expressed my great respect for Bill and his coauthors — they definitely among the most thoughtful researchers in the area of foreign tech workers — I still often disagree with their findings/methods, even in cases in which their findings jibe with my own.

I’ve written plenty, e.g. in my EPI paper, on what Bill describes as “their sheer quantity” before — as forecast 25 years ago by the NSF, the influx of foreign STEM specialists held down PhD wages and therefore drove out the Americans from STEM graduate work — but Bill’s mentioning “he disproportionate number of superstars who are immigrants” caught my eye.  This aspect will be the focus of my post here this evening.

I should remind readers that I have always strongly supported facilitating the immigration of the superstars (including those with outstanding promise).  But Bill’s word disproportionate is provocative.  While I’ve shown in various ways that most H-1Bs, especially those who first come to the U.S. as foreign students (the industry’s prized group, according to the lobbyists), are not “the best and the brightest,” I haven’t done much specifically on rates of superstardom.  What I’ll do here is review my work in that regard for computer science (CS), and then follow with some new data.

In any such analysis, the key aspect is properly defining the numerator and denominator implied in use of the term disproportionate.  Take a common example, Nobel laureates. What should we use for our denominator?  Certainly not the general population.  Maybe the population of those with STEM bachelor’s degrees?  Master’s?  PhDs?  PhDs in academia?  You can see the problem.

I will not address other superstardom papers in this posting (will do so later if I see it worthwhile), but in the case of my EPI paper, I believe my choices of numerator and denominator were quite reasonable:  number of dissertation awards / number of dissertations, referring to the very prestigious ACM Dissertation Award. There I found that foreign students in North America received 48% of the awards, and that 48-51% of all CS dissertations were done by foreign students.  (One of the awards was in Canada, and that one went to a foreign student.)  In other words, the foreign students were no more and no less prone to win this award than the Americans.

So, Bill’s term disproportionate does not apply in the case of CS.  What field to look at next?  I have generally restricted my analyses of H-1B-related issues to CS, because that is my own field.  I’ve often criticized work on both sides of the H-1B debate on the grounds that although the researchers are fine number crunchers, to them the numbers merely concern widgets, without understanding what these workers really do.  I believe that my own contribution stems largely from the fact that I do have such insight.

Accordingly, I’ve now done something similar to my CS dissertation analysis, this time turning the field of Statistics.  That was my original research area — I was one of the founding members of the UCD Department of Statistics — and much of my CS work has been statistical in nature.  So I know what Statistics researchers do, who is outstanding in the field, and so on.

And as with CS, there is a handy data set to work from, The Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies (COPSS) Presidents’ Award.  COPSS’ description is quite accurate:

The COPSS Presidents’ Award is given annually by the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies to a person under the age of 40, in recognition of outstanding contributions to the profession of statistics. It is arguably the most prestigious award in statistics, the Nobel Prize of Statistics.

These are brilliant, truly outstanding people, many of them quite prominent in today’s Big Data and Machine Learning crazes.  They are professors at places like Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, CMU and so on. The U.S. is lucky to have them, natives and immigrants alike.

I limited my analysis to those who earned their PhDs in the U.S., again reflecting the industry lobbyists’ emphasis on the foreign grad students at U.S. universities.  The results were that foreigners got 33% of the awards, but form 50% of the PhDs granted (the latter number from the NSCG data).

In other words, in the Stat field, foreigners receive a disproportionately SMALL number of awards.

I’ll have more to say on this in future posts.


10 thoughts on “Immigrant Superstars

  1. Congratulations, Norm on documenting some very potent COPSS data. It fits into the larger U.S. picture where economic elites have systematically substituted bloated numbers of less-expensive younger immigrants for talented and experienced American citizen technical professionals since 1990 as a means to boost short-term corporate profitability. The economic benefits of this substitution are privatized, while the substantial costs are socialized.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, boy. “Superstars”. WTF. What does this mean? What *could* it mean? It’s one of those terms that people outside of a field tend to use, because people inside of the field know it’s garbage. Who is a “superstar” in the movie industry? In baseball? Even in basketball?

    Actually basketball is maybe the *only* area I can think of where the term makes sense, and almost entirely because of one (1) man who is long since retired. OK, and before him, perhaps one other. But even there, basketball is a TEAM sport and featuring a “superstar” is disruptive, even if you have one. It was so famously even on that superstar’s team.

    In STEM I think it means even less. Is Bill Gates a “superstar”? Why, exactly? Should we measure “superstardom” in billions of dollars owned? Just for laughs, what if we do, how to immigrants fare?

    In the mundane field of IT, which is the one most flooded with H-1B and related high-tech immigrants, there IS NO SUCH THING as superstar. I could go on about this at very great length, but don’t take my word for it, go over to your anthropology or sociology departments and have them do a formal study of any large organization you can find. Or read the last hundred years’ literature on how bureaucracies work, “The nail that sticks up is hammered down” will do for a brief synopsis.

    As a cultural item the selection and celebration features of superstardom are subject to change, Twenty-plus years ago it was typical for large organizations to have one or two senior technical types on staff, today it is unknown and seems just so culturally incompatible with so many aspects of modern American businesses especially in and around IT, the idea really is entirely laughable.

    Now of course there are other STEM areas, the flood of STEM is everywhere. I can only speak first-hand or even second-hand for so many. The Silicon Valley startup field always *talks* as if they have a real meritocratic, technocratic culture going. It’s just that I have not every seen it first-hand. I’ve worked in and around, and talked to people in, many startups. When one succeeds there are usually some individual around who should be given more of the credit, but these have almost always been organizational, business types, if you ask me. Conversely their idea of a “superstar” is someone on salary who outproduces the others, and thus earns what, a better parking space, or a twelve dollar trophy, or one more “attaboy”. Puh-lease.

    Which is all prologue to one more point I wanted to make, that counting degrees or even prize-winning dissertations is a poor way to measure superstardom. It is tempting to say it is probably inversely related to superstardom (must I list athlete who do not finish college, or again our friend Bill Gates?), statistics that the heads of Fortune 500 firms tend to come from second-rank schools (and probably undistinguished academics), etc? At best it is probably very poorly correlated, if not actually inversely so.

    I’ve been working in various STEM and IT environments for many years now. As a high contributor myself (in all due modesty), and as a student of the “process”es involved, both technical and HR, I have watched both my own opportunities as objectively as possible, and also those of the best I run into all over town. I would say that the “superstars” tend to know who they are and to recognize each other, but to see one recognized AT ALL by management is vanishingly rare, and just about as often prelude to being fired as disruptive as to be put on a pedestal. This doesn’t even count the occassional ranting by some high-level suit like my favorite occassion some years ago now, the GM of the division carrying on in front of his staff, “If you know any world-class developers, have them call me!”, which no matter how you look at it comes down as an insult to everyone else in the room.

    Anyone who is anything like a “superstar” is going to run off and be a principal in a startup, this has always been the American way. It in no way correlates to Nobel Prizes or anything like that. This discussion is about the impact of “superstars” on the economy. If you must persist in this at all count dollars by the billions, nothing else comes close.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. (hoping this formats correctly)

    Date: Sun, 5 Oct 2014 22:20:01 -0700
    From: Norm Matloff
    Subject: immigrant STEM superstars

    > I have some NEW data analysis in this evening’s posting (NOT in what I sent out on Friday), with rather surprising results. Please take a look.

    Where to look?


  4. First off, I feel I owe you and apology, Dr. Matloff.  I’ve followed this topic fairly closely for the past half decade but only recently stumbled across your blog.  I should’ve sought it out.


    I, too, have often noticed how pro-immigration pieces attempt to elevate immigrants as Super-American, not only in terms of being somehow inherently better but somehow better espousing American values than Americans.  I find it irksome not only because it artificially skews the debate but is a cheap ploy to open up opponents to automatically being xenophobes, racists or whatever usually unsubstantiated claims they would like to paint their detractors as being.  Indeed it compels me to reiterate that I question the implicit superiority.  My qualm is with immigration policy and its misuse, not with immigrants themselves.


    The most common tactics seem to be 1) using amazing numbers without context, “contribute $50 billion” out of ???, 2) tricks in definition “40% of Fortune 500 immigrant-founded*” or 3) comparing apples to fruit markets “Indians in US make more than native-born.”  To be fair, I’m comfortably certain these tactics are used as acceptable tools throughout most issues–“acceptable” at least to those who feel the point of arguing is to win, not to seek the truth.  It is skilled immigration, though, that I most closely follow.


    * PNAE’s 40% of Fortune 500 baits and switches.  On one side of the equation, it places people (immigrants and their children) on the other goes a set of people (companies).  This makes two convenient inflations of the immigrant lineage:  1) Most companies are founded by multiple people.  If all founders or only 1/10th were immigrants (or child thereof), it’s full credit.  2) While I would guess it is more common that immigrant parents are from the same region of the world, there certainly have been founders with one native-born and one immigrant parent.  Again, half or full lineage receives full credit.  Using same tricks it’s likely that 95-98% of F500 companies were native-born or their children founded.


    I also take issue with this super-human gumption with which any immigrant is automatically assumed to have been imbued.  It is frequently argued because they’ve left everything behind they are naturally risk-taking super-humans.  I don’t mean to imply that crossing the Atlantic in steerage in the 1800’s or crossing a desert on foot even today are not perilous.  But are acts of desperation equivalent to acts of entrepreneurialism?  Is it so much less courageous for me to have left a stable and safe existence in Iowa to seek another in Colorado?  If your option is “cake or death”, just how courageous is choosing cake?


    • I’m strongly in favor of bringing in the superstars, but most are not in that league, just ordinary people doing ordinary work. I’ll write about that Fortune 500 study if I have time, very misleading.


  5. I am at a disadvantage to Dr. Matloff and others here in that I am a non-techie, who has worked with techies for years. But I recall one situation that was rather humorous. We had a summer intern, who had had one class in programming at Harvard (Steven), add a much-needed feature to our software application in a few days! I showed him a feature we were missing on our “web client”, and a few errors with existing features (text entered didn’t justify correctly, so it looked sloppy and unprofessional), and a few days later he had them fixed or added. New relevant ideas, technical tips, and improvements typically came from sharp, seasoned customers and industry “knowledge experts”.

    This was particularly irksome to the company president on several levels. First, he was Chinese-American, and only hired H1B Visa workers straight from China. Second, Steven was Vietnamese-American, and 19. Third, he was always telling me how great the workers he brought in from China were, they he only brought in workers from the best universities. So this was like salt in the wound.

    I later became good friends with one of our developers. He would often tell me that what they did was “nothing special”, and his dreams were to work in artificial intelligence (research). Of all the people we brought in, one was supposedly wooed by Google, and another sharp, street wise youngster never signed on with us, instead moving to the heart of the Silicon Valley.

    Anyhow, the recent media reports I have seen deal with a “lack of diversity” in silicon valley (which really goes back to a lack of diversity in STEM majors, doesn’t it?), haven’t seen much on age discrimination or discrimination against American workers. The last tech company I worked at was 100 percent immigrant Chinese after 10 years, they played games with the H1B visa, yet the government ignores such situations. I’m told it is also legal to consider knowledge of a second language (say, Mandarin) as a job requirement, which will knock out 90+ percent of American STEM workers.


    • Yes, knowledge of a language, say, Chinese, is legally OK, and probably legitimate in most cases. Any policy is subject to abuse.

      But it’s true that managers tend to hire from their own ethnic groups, which is why one does see all-Chinese, all-Indian, all-Russian small firms, or projects in larger firms.

      That guy Steven is a good example of why talent overrides grades, university pedigree etc.


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