Russia's Math Geniuses Work Mainly in the West

New research suggests Russia has lost its best mathematical minds to the U.S. and Europe.

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In Michael Lewis's book "Flash Boys," one of the characters, telecom expert Ronan Ryan, suddenly noticed around 2005 that more and more trading software "seemed to be written by guys with thick Russian accents." That was because most of these guys were no longer doing academic work in Russia and other former Soviet countries.

A recent paper published in Moscow by Vladlen Timorin and Ivan Sterligov from the Higher School of Economics attempts to quantify the outflow of Russian mathematicians since the Soviet Union's collapse -- a momentous migration that has changed the academic and business landscape in the U.S. -- and orphaned Russia of its best and brightest, but hasn't completely wiped it out as a math superpower.

Mathematics was long a refuge for the Soviet Union's smartest "internal emigres" -- escapists who wanted nothing to do with the Communist ideological machine. To be sure, the state used them to do things like sensitive defense research, but at least they enjoyed more creative freedom than authors, painters or even composers. A formidable training and selection system for mathematicians and physicists evolved, with meritocratic elite schools and a system of competitions, known as Olympiads, that helped the best minds to get noticed. There wasn't much international recognition, though: The Communist Party preferred to play its cards close to its chest. Mathematicians couldn't even publish their work overseas without permission and, since the 1936 case of Nikolai Luzin, who was accused of saving his best results for publication abroad and nearly lost his life for it, many preferred not to ask for that permission.

Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and they were suddenly in demand. In a 2012 paper, George Borjas and Kirk Doran showed how the arrival of these academics in the U.S. changed the entire field. "Our empirical analysis demonstrates that the American mathematicians whose research programs most overlapped with that of the Soviets experienced a reduction in productivity after the entry of Soviet émigrés into the U.S. mathematics market," they wrote.

Between 1992 and 2008, the average Soviet émigré published 20 more papers than the average American, and those papers received 143 more citations. In short, the Soviet émigrés originated in the upper tail of the skill distribution of mathematicians in the Soviet Union and quickly moved into the upper tail of the skill distribution in the American mathematics community.

In certain areas, such as integral and differential equations, Russians were more advanced than Americans. On arrival to the West, they pushed local researchers aside in these fields. Eventually, they found a way to banks and trading firms just as the demand for "quants" increased and the financial industry's tech revolution began.

This made several markets more competitive, but in the end it resulted in a significant transfer of knowledge to the West. The ex-Soviets would, for example, cite previously little-known work that had been published in the Soviet Union, and thus enrich the available research base. In business, too, they used techniques and approaches that hadn't been common in the West before their arrival.

It's clear that the West benefited from the influx: This is a textbook case proving the usefulness of skilled immigration. The effect on Russia itself, the donor country, is less well-researched.

Timorin and Sterligov used the Web of Science academic database to locate publications by mathematicians with common Russian last names. In 1994, about 70 percent of such scientists were affiliated with Russian institutions. That proportion dropped sharply in the 1990s, to about 50 percent. The Timorin-Sterligov paper sheds some light on where most of the mathematicians went; unsurprisingly, more than a third of those who moved West in 1993-2015 went to the U.S., with France a distant second. 

An optimist might note that after the initial drop, the number of researchers with Russian affiliations stabilized at about 50 percent, and the share of double affiliations -- both with Russian and Western institutions -- started growing, reaching about a quarter. That's not necessarily good for Russia, though. Those researchers who left the country have more citations to their name and more publications in top-25 journals. Those Russia managed to retain prefer to publish within the country; these are either deeply conservative individuals or less gifted ones. Timorin and Sterligov wrote:

Russian mathematics has lost its best representatives; nevertheless, it still stands very high at the international level. The decline has come to an end but no significant progress is currently visible.

This lack of progress is potentially more damaging to Russia than the drop in oil prices or even the external aggression of President Vladimir Putin. The Soviet Union, both because of and despite its repressive nature, produced a cohort of bright scientists who might hold the key to weaning Russia off its oil dependence and, arguably, making aggression unnecessary: A technological advantage is a more efficient way to gain power in today's world. Modern Russia, however, has little to offer that cohort to entice it back, and it is losing the next generation of mathematicians because the best of the emigres are busy training U.S. and European students.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.