Global Talent Lab


Recent Research & Writings on Global Talent

Academic Papers

Invisible Geniuses: Could the Knowledge Frontier Advance Faster?
American Economic Review: Insights, December 2020 (Lead article)

Coverage: AEA Chart of the Week, LSE Business Review,, Mother Jones, DNA


A better understanding of the determinants of idea/knowledge production remains critical for long-run growth. Towards this end, this paper establishes two results using data from the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). First, individuals who excelled in teenage years are especially capable of advancing the knowledge frontier. Second, such talented individuals born in poorer countries are systematically less likely to engage in knowledge production. IMO participants from low-income countries produce 34% fewer publications and 56% fewer cites than equally talented rich-country counterparts. Policies to encourage talented youth to pursue scientific careers–especially those from poorer countries–could advance the knowledge frontier faster.

Top Talent, Elite Colleges, and Migration: Evidence from the Indian Institutes of Technology. NBER Working Paper 31308; forthcoming at the Journal of Development Economics. Open access final version here

Coverage: The Economist ; Forbes ; Hindustan Times; University World News; Office Chai;   

We study migration in the right tail of the talent distribution using a novel dataset of Indian high school students taking the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE), a college entrance exam used for admission to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). We find a high incidence of migration after students complete college: among the top 1000 scorers on the exam, 36% have migrated abroad, rising to 62% for the top 100 scorers. We next document that students who attended the original “Top 5” Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) were 5 percentage points more likely to migrate for graduate school compared to equally talented students who studied in other institutions. We explore two mechanisms for these patterns: signaling, for which we study migration after one university suddenly gained the IIT designation; and alumni networks, using information on the location of IIT alumni in U.S. computer science departments. 

Why U.S. Immigration Matters for the Global Advancement of Science
Research Policy, January 2023. Open access final version here.

Coverage: Marginal Revolution, Noahpinion, Finance & Development, IMF Podcast


This paper studies the impact of U.S. immigration barriers on global knowledge production. We present four key findings. First, among Nobel Prize winners and Fields Medalists, migrants to the U.S. play a central role in the global knowledge network— representing 20-33% of the frontier knowledge producers. Second, using novel survey data and hand-curated life-histories of International Math Olympiad (IMO) medalists, we show that migrants to the U.S. are up to six times more productive than migrants to other countries— even after accounting for talent during one’s teenage years. Third, financing costs are a key factor preventing foreign talent from migrating abroad to pursue their dream careers, particularly talent from developing countries. Fourth, certain ‘push’ incentives that reduce immigration barriers – by addressing financing constraints for top foreign talent – could increase the global scientific output of future cohorts by 42%. We conclude by discussing policy options for the U.S. and the global scientific community.

What Drives Innovation? Lessons from COVID-19 R&D  
Journal of Health Economics, March 2022

Coverage: Brookings, Hutchins Roundup, WTO Webinar, IZA World of Labor


To examine the drivers of innovation, this paper studies the global R&D effort to fight the deadliest diseases and presents four results. We find: (1) global pharmaceutical R&D activity—measured by clinical trials—typically follows the 'law of diminishing effort': i.e. the elasticity of R&D effort with respect to market size is about 0.5 in the cross-section of diseases; (2) the R&D response to COVID-19 has been a major exception to this law, with the number of COVID-19 trials being 7 to 20 times greater than that implied by its market size; (3) the aggregate short-term elasticity of science and innovation can be very large, as demonstrated by aggregate flow of clinical trials increasing by 38% in 2020, with limited crowding out of trials for non-COVID diseases; and (4) public institutions and government-led incentives were a key driver of the COVID-19 R&D effort---with public research institutions accounting for 70 percent of all COVID-19 clinical trials globally and being 10 percentage points more likely to conduct a COVID-19 trial relative to private firms. Overall, while economists are naturally in favor of market size as a driving force for innovation (i.e. "if the market size is sufficiently large then innovation will happen"), our work suggests that scaling up global innovation may require a broader perspective on the drivers of innovation---including early-stage incentives, non-monetary incentives, and public institutions.

Other Writings

"Could the Knowledge Frontier Advance Faster?," Vox. Dec. 2018 

"Embracing the Gift of Global Talent," Finance & Development, Spring 2021 (Podcast)

"What does the COVID-19 R&D Response Tell Us About Innovation," Economic Observatory. Sept. 2021

"Lessons from COVID-19 Research & Development," IMF Research Perspectives. Summer 2021