“The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Productivity of American Mathematicians”

This is the title of a fairly interesting paper, the conclusions of which I would summarise as follows: after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a sudden drop in the number of papers published by Americans working in fields which had been popular in the Soviet Union, which did not happen in fields which were unpopular there. Their papers were also less cited, and they moved to less prestigious institutions. Collaborating with Soviet immigrants afforded some but not total protection from this effect. Remarkably (and not entirely irrelevantly for me; I’m actually a data point in the paper, and my advisor is actually mentioned by name) this effect was transmitted to students: students after the fall of the Soviet Union wrote more (and more cited) papers if their advisor had immigrated to the US than if they had an American advisor who works topics popular among Soviets (with students that had American advisors working in topics unpopular with Soviets were in between).

This is obviously a very crude analysis (for example, “fields” means top level AMS Subject Class groups, which we all know are deeply flawed), but it’s still a very interesting, and to me at least slightly counter-intuitive conclusion. The authors suggest that the immigration of Soviet mathematicians to the US had a slightly negative effect on the number of papers written by all mathematicians in the US (the immigrants didn’t write enough to make up for the drop amongst American authors), which is not at all what I would have expected.

5 thoughts on ““The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Productivity of American Mathematicians”

  1. At least thinking about it after the fact, the relatively small change in the number of papers published does not seem so surprising to me.

    What this suggests to me is that, at least over the long term among large groups of mathematicians, research productivity measured in terms of papers depends much more on how conducive employment conditions are to research than on some nebulous personal research ability. I really have no doubt that if the professors at Williams who taught me as an undergrad or my former colleagues at St. Olaf had been working at research universities, their research productivity would have been much higher. (They also would have been less happy with their jobs.)

    Given that the number of research university jobs has remained essentially constant (and perhaps even declined slightly), it is not surprising that total research productivity has remained essentially constant. If a Soviet mathematician got a job at Berkeley, displacing someone who displaced someone who displaced someone who ended up at Bowling Green State, who in turn through another chain of displacements landed someone at a community college, then it is not surprising that the Soviet mathematician publishes more than the person displaced to the community college (cancelling all the equalities in between), nor is it surprising that the Soviet mathematician’s students publish more than the students from Bowling Green. (Remember that the Soviet “community college level mathematicians” stayed in the Soviet Union.)

    In addition, many mathematicians who are displaced from research universities take less mathematical industry positions from which they rarely if at all publish rather than work at less prestigious departments.

    I would like to see the data, and especially the data on students, controlled (or regression analyzed) for institution. I realize there just may not be enough data to do this in a statistically reliable way.

  2. When i visited first time the US in 1987 i have discovered that it was a time of serious financial problems in math departments in the US. I was told that the reason is that “detente” between US and USSR caused very serious cut in the US military budget and this affected math departments. So it was generally difficult time on math jobs market. Simultaneously it was a time when russian mathematians started to come.

  3. The paper is very interesting indeed and seems to have sound data to back up its conclusions, but one thing struck me as rather bizarre: in a footnote on page 8 it is stated

    “Algebraic Geometry, a field of relative U.S. excellence, provides another example of the persistence of history dependence. The Summary Report of the Panel on Soviet Mathematics (Lefschetz 1961, p.IV-2) explains that: “in no part of mathematics is the Soviet Union weaker than in algebraic geometry. No significant contributions have ever … come from there.” This was not only true in 1961, but, as Figure I demonstrates, it remained true in the 1980s.”

    Given that the BBDG decomposition theorem was proven in the early 1980s, largely on Soviet soil with half the authors Soviet mathematicians, this seems to be very far from the truth!

  4. Another sparrow, or perhaps giant bird of prey: the Torelli theorem for K3 surfaces by Piatetski-Shapiro and Shafarevich. (I also found this assertion about algebraic geometry rather strange.)

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