Well-educated immigrants are biggest innovators in US tech

Survey results debunk myths about the country's biggest source of innovation. Hint: It's not US-born college dropouts.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
2 min read

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been a vocal critic of the H1B visa program that allows educated immigrants to fill technology jobs.

© RICHARD ELLIS/epa/Corbis

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump may be wrong about one part of what makes America great. According to a recent study, more than a third of technological innovation in this country comes from people born outside the US.

A Washington, DC-based think tank surveyed more than 900 individuals who have won prestigious awards or have been awarded international patents expected to make significant economic impact. It found that 35.5 percent of them were immigrants. That far exceeds the proportion of first-generation immigrants in the US population, which stands at about 13.5 percent, according to the report published Wednesday by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

The findings come during an election cycle where presidential candidates such as Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz have demonized "illegal immigrants" and pushed hard against immigration reform. Both Cruz and Trump have been critical of the H1B visa program that helps tech workers from outside the US fill positions at American companies. The survey calls into question those assumptions and shows how important immigration is to growing the US economy and pushing technology innovation to new heights.

The survey results also help shatter the romantic myth in Silicon Valley that cocky college dropouts at brash startups are fueling technology innovation in this country.

"People may think technological innovation is driven by precocious college dropouts at startup companies, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg," Adams Nager, ITIF economic policy analyst and the study's lead author, said in a statement. "In reality, America's innovators are far more likely to be immigrants with advanced degrees who have paid their dues through years of work in large companies."

Indeed, most people making breakthrough contributions to the tech industry have spent years in school, with 80 percent obtaining at least one advanced degree, and 55 percent earning a doctorate in a STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) subject, according to the survey. The top innovators also were not young bucks working at startups either. The median age for earning these accolades was 47, and most spent years working their way up at large companies.

The survey also confirmed the tech industry's gender and minority imbalance. Women represented 11.7 percent of US innovators and US-born minorities only made up 8 percent. Blacks made up just 0.5 percent of US-born innovators.

While it's no secret that Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, Nager said the "extent of that gap is so stark that it caught us by surprise."