U-S-A! U-S-A!

by John Derbyshire

We naturally obsess over the problems of our own country, forgetting what a darn nice place it is, what great resources the U.S.A. possesses, how attractive it is to people elsewhere, and how lucky we are to be living here.

Those at any rate were among the thoughts that came to mind as I was reading this report in the current Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The report’s title is “Influential Mathematicians: Birth, Education, and Affiliation.”

The authors are interested in the validity of “league tables” of prowess (national, institutional, departmental, even personal) in highest-level math, especially in view of the high mobility of the most talented people.

The purpose of this article is to attempt a first probe of the “movement effect” to see how this might influence a concrete question, such as the comparison between the United States and Europe in the field of mathematics. We focus on highly cited mathematicians, since citations are often taken as a strong indicator of research impact, and track their countries of birth, education, and current affiliation.

Guess what: Of the 343 highly cited researchers (HCRs) worldwide in their database, 234 — that’s 68 percent — are currently affiliated with U.S. universities or institutions. Europe has 78, nobody else more than 8. (Table 1.)

If you cut those 343 CRs in math by country of birth, you get Table 6, showing Europe out ahead, with 129 of the 343. An awful lot must have moved here, and not many the other way. Sure enough:

We also see that the movement from Europe to the United States (23.9 percent) heavily outnumbers the opposite movement (1.3 percent).

Whichever domestic problem it is we’re obsessing about this week, the U.S.A. is still the place to be, especially if you want to do the most challenging research at the highest levels.