Research Issues in the International Migration of Highly Skilled Workers: A Perspective with Data from the United States
Cross-border migration of highly skilled persons has expanded markedly, making it a focus of intense policy interest in many countries. In both the developed and less-developed world, keeping or attracting highly skilled workers is a key part of national economic policy and is a consideration not just for immigration policies but also plans for higher education, research funding, international investment, and even tax policies. This paper seeks to clarify the dimensions of some of the major outstanding research issues about the effects of this growing migration, particularly the migration of scientists and engineers.
Migration across national borders provokes many spirited political and policy debates. Although these debates are often most contentious when they deal with migrants with lower skills, highly skilled migrants are usually employed in the types of jobs that some would prefer go to natives or citizens. At the same time, governments in both less-developed and many developed countries worry about losing their more highly educated workers. As high-skill migration appears to become more important to the world economy, understanding its likely effects becomes all the more significant. Unfortunately, these effects have not been well studied or measured.
As the world's largest economy, as the largest educator of foreign students, and as a traditional nation of immigration, the United States is an important nexus for the international movement of highly skilled workers. The 2000 Decennial Census showed that a large proportion of highly skilled U.S. workers are foreign born. This includes 25.7% of all employed doctorate holders and 37.6% of doctorate holders in science and engineering (S&E) occupations. Although U.S. data on high-skill migration constitute only one piece of a much larger and complex picture, they are comparatively rich data that provide some general insights into the magnitude and direction of some of the possible effects of high-skill migration throughout the world.
This paper raises as research issues possible negative and positive effects from the perspectives of both receiving and sending countries, and possible global consequences of high-skilled migration. Many of these issues are in turn related to unanswered questions in labor market theory and economic growth theory, for example: How interchangeable are skills among those with specialized knowledge? Does the presence of highly skilled workers in an economy affect firms' decisions about investment and research and development (R&D) (e.g., increasing demand over time for highly skilled workers)? Do more scientists lead to more knowledge? This paper does not provide answers to these types of questions. Instead, it examines how these and other questions, along with the paucity of good data, affect the understanding of high-skill migration.