Migration and innovation are inextricably linked. We still need them both.

Mark Mann
April 22, 2020

Migration and innovation are closely linked. Ideas and innovators travel, and displacement plays a role in generating opportunities for the discovery of new ideas, resources, and relationships. Canada is uniquely blessed in terms of immigration and uniquely challenged in terms of emigration. Many are attracted here by opportunities to learn, create, and prosper, and some leave for the US for the same reasons. In these days of calcifying borders and unprecedented demand for government resources, it’s important to recognize these interdependencies and ask ourselves how we can continue to be the open, just, and forwarding-looking nation we want to be.

Highly skilled individuals are more likely than others to migrate. Worldwide, 3% of the world’s population lives outside its country of birth, as do 5.4% of those with university degrees, 10% of inventors, and 31% of Nobel Laureates. Canada is the world’s second most desirable destination for would-be immigrants. Immigration to Canada has been increasing since the 1950s, to the point where today, one in five Canadians was born outside the country and Toronto is the world’s most diverse city with 46% foreign-born residents. Canada is also among the top three destinations for skilled immigrants. Emigration, in contrast, is difficult to track. Even in countries like the Netherlands, where emigrants are legally required to report their departure, many do not.

The data on inventors helps us understand who is coming to Canada and who is leaving. Patent applications filed by inventors can be used to trace their locations. Canada does well at attracting immigrant inventors. Between 1990 and 2010, Canada attracted over 10% of inventors that migrated.  But we also lose a lot of inventors through emigration to the US.  If one considers the worldwide population of inventors, Canada has the world’s third-largest net emigration, after only China and India. The US has the largest net immigration among this population, by a huge margin.

Another important group is entrepreneurs. Early research on immigrant entrepreneurs focused on the outlier performance of a few individuals, such as Google co-founder Sergey Brin (who immigrated to the US as a child), and regions, such as the San Francisco Bay area. More recent studies combine comprehensive datasets on immigrants, employees, and businesses. A Statistics Canada study has shown that immigrant entrepreneurs create more new jobs than Canadian entrepreneurs. This is because immigrants have a greater propensity to found companies than native Canadians, and new companies create the most net new jobs. Immigrant-owned companies account for 25% of net new jobs in Canada, even though they account for only 17% of companies.

When it comes to researchers, the government has long been sensitive to the dynamics of migration. The flagship Canada Research Chairs program was created in 2000 to attract the world’s best scientists, but because of funding limitations and other challenges, only about 10% of the chair holders are recruited from abroad, and this includes expatriate Canadians. Hence the Canada 150 Research Chairs Program, created in 2017, with a higher level of funding per chair.

Last but not least are the inventors, entrepreneurs, and researchers of the future, our students. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of international students in Canada increased by 68%. In 2018, a total of 721,205 international students at all levels studied in Canada — the largest cohort ever. But Canadian students are reluctant to study abroad, citing the expense and the difficulty of transferring credits earned in foreign countries.

While 30% of European and 16% of American undergraduates study abroad, only 11% of Canadian undergraduates do so, and most of those go to the US, the UK, Australia, and France.  While we don’t want our university graduates to emigrate, we do want them to be knowledgeable and sensitive to alternative perspectives.

So, what can the government and Canadians do to enable innovation, global engagement, and the desirability of Canada as a destination? With the coronavirus, there are now unprecedented demands on government resources.

Our current priority has to be people, and that means everyone, including the migrant farmworkers and the truckers who continue to supply us. And we must do what we can to keep organizations and communities whole. But as French economist Thomas Piketty argues, ruptures such as pandemics create opportunities for new narratives and economic renewal. The migration and innovation that emerges from the devastation of the coronavirus may allow us to address social and environmental goals that have thus far seemed elusive.


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