Chinese Talent, American Enterprise
Five Takeaways of How Chinese Talent Contributes to Biotech Innovation in the U.S.
by Lei Guang, Ruixue Jia, Jingwen Liu, Young Yang
Visualization by Jingwen Liu and Young Yang
At The Heart Of Innovation: Talent
Talent is at the heart of innovation. The movement of talent across national borders has attracted the attention of policymakers worldwide. In the United States, many have observed that foreign talent plays a central role in driving innovation and making the country competitive in science and technology. Talented individuals from foreign countries are reported to have contributed to new scientific discoveries and created new products and processes in the United States. But the precise degree of contributions to a particular industry by international talent has not been well quantified and documented.
To understand the degree to which foreign talent drives American enterprises, we examine innovation in biotechnology, a rapidly evolving field of discovery and innovation that the United States has long dominated. The National Academy of Sciences has declared the 21st century the “age of biotechnology.” Advances in biotechnology are vital for future global progress and prosperity. Indeed, such advances depend on talent, and on global cooperation, including and especially between the United States and People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Five Takeaways (Click for Details)
In this blog, we document the significant and increasing contribution of Chinese inventors to biotech innovation in the U.S. In aggregate terms from 1976 to 2019, most of the PRC-born or mainland Chinese inventors (explained below) of U.S. biotech patents reside in the United States.
Their inventions overwhelmingly benefit American companies. According to our very restrictive definition, mainland Chinese inventors were responsible for at least 11.1 percent of the biotech patents in 2019 alone, with over 70 percent of the patents assigned to U.S. companies.
U.S. – China collaboration, including the number of super-mobile inventors who shuttle between the two countries, is among the highest of any pair of countries that either involve the U.S. or China as one party. In the case of super-mobile inventors too, most of their patents benefit American enterprises.
We can thus conclude that American strength in biotechnology benefits greatly from the participation of international talent, including PRC-born Chinese scientists and technology entrepreneurs. We echo the sentiment expressed in a recent 21st Century China Center report: “America’s long-standing fundamental advantage is its ability to attract the world’s best talent to its universities and laboratories…the United States should avoid making America the ‘second choice’ for top talent.”
The quantity and ownership of patents are among the best indicators of technological innovation. Using patent data from PatentView, a platform that derives records of inventors from the bulk files of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), we analyze the contribution of Chinese inventors to American success in the biotech field. We use the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) classification to define biotechnology patents as those related to biological materials, medical technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, macromolecular chemistry polymers, food chemistry, and plant biology. Based on this classification, we have identified a total of 884,636 biotech patents by 645,218 inventors filed with USPTO between 1976-2019.
We estimate the ethnicity of the inventors in two ways:
1. Ethnically Chinese Names: We use an algorithm called NamePrism to identify ethnically Chinese names (See methodological notes about NamePrism).
2. PRC-born or Mainland Chinese Names: In the context of this blog, we define “mainland Chinese” to be those inventors of U.S. biotech patents who are born in China, who would later immigrate to the U.S. or stay in China with patent-filing activities in the U.S. We identify names that align with naming conventions in Hanyu pinyin system widely used in the PRC to approximate the proportion of inventors who are PRC-born. Note that this method misses those who come from mainland China but use anglicized names.
We estimate that at least 49 percent of ethnic Chinese inventors in the database have a PRC connection, that is, they are either recent immigrants or foreign visa holders in the U.S., or increasingly residents of China who file patents in the U.S. Based on this information, we estimate the contribution to biotech patents filed in the United States by ethnic Chinese inventors in general, and by the mainland Chinese inventors in particular.
This research has benefited from the research assistance provided by Chaoran LI and Songyue ZHANG, both graduate students at UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy.
 Hanyu Pinyin, often abbreviated as Pinyin, is the official romanization system for Standard Chinese in PRC or mainland China. Increasingly it is also being adopted by Singapore and some other countries, but most places with large Chinese population such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and SE Asian countries, still follow a different alphabetic custom. As is explained in our methodological notes, we manually customize our Pinyin dictionary to exclude explicit non-PRC alphabetic customs, which increases our confidence that inventors identified by our Pinyin method are likely to be residents of China, or first-generation immigrants or foreign visa holders from China in the United States, a subset of the ethnic Chinese inventors.
Lei GUANG is the director of 21st Century China Center, GPS, UC San Diego. His research focuses on the state-society relations in China. He has studied China’s internal migration, informal sector workers, and political discourses, and is interested in understanding how public opinions in China and the U.S. influence their respective policies toward each other.
Ruixue JIA is a Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE and an associate professor at GPS, UC San Diego. Dr Jia is interested in the interplay of economics, history and politics. One stream of her research focuses on understanding elite formation and elite influence, in both historical and modern contexts. A second focus of her work is the deep historical roots of economic development. More recently, she started following the ongoing transformation of the manufacturing sector in China and expanded her interest to labour and technology issues.
Jingwen LIU graduated from GPS, UC San Diego with a Master of Chinese Economic and Political Affairs in 2020 and currently works in data analytics in the industry. She is interested in understanding public opinion and how historical memory and discourse influence information consumption and decision making leveraging different data sources and methods.
Young YANG is a postdoctoral fellow at the China Data Lab, UC San Diego, where he works closely with faculty and other researchers on data exploration, integration, and visualization. His research interests fall into how new information technologies combined with government and platform policies influence individuals and organizations’ decision-making process.