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Ethnic and diasporic ties in scientific cooperation and knowledge production

Intensification of international scientific collaboration is accompanied by a pronounced increase in academic migration and mobility worldwide, with the developed states of Europe and US acting as leading players in these processes. Working with scientists across the globe and incorporating more foreign born scholars and students from various parts of the world than ever before, academic communities in developed countries undergo the process of transformation, changing their composition and structure and becoming more ethnically and culturally diverse. They constitute qualitatively new conditions for the formation and functioning of scientific communities and for the realization of scientific work and research activity. At the same time there is a lack of examination of the cultural diversity in academic setting as well as lack of interest to foreign born scientists and their national, ethnic, cultural background as a factor affecting the structure of scientific communities and scientific collaboration activities. One may find numerous works on student population and implications of cultural heterogeneity in the classroom on the learning process or examination of productivity and efficiency of multicultural research teams from organizational or management perspective. But studies addressing the effects of ethnic diversity on research process and knowledge production work, especially with focus on scientific collectives, are quite rare. Here I discuss their results in detail and demonstrate that they provide interesting evidence provoking us to reconsider the role and significance of ethnic and diasporic ties.

Concerning scientific cooperation specifically, one finds investigations of co-authorship connections of Chinese scholars. They analyze papers written together by scholars in China and other countries, proving that ethnic connections act as an important mechanism and facilitator of cross-border cooperation. One study revealed that among internationally co-authored publications of mainland Chinese scholars a substantial share of papers is produced at least in some collaboration with Chinese scholars residing overseas, ranging from 30% for France up to 72% for US, with the growing proportion of works written exclusively with scientists having Chinese origins (Jin et al 2007). It confirmed the crucial role of scholars with Chinese descent living abroad “in promoting international collaboration” and serving “as bridges between China and their country of residence” (Ibid: 9). Another study also registered “an absolute and relative increase in transnational research collaboration between overseas Chinese scientists and researchers in mainland China (Jonker 2010: 240), especially prominent in case of US-based scholars, but found that this effect depends on the quality of the host country research system and policies of the home country.

The significance of cultural affinity and diasporic ties in the wide sense of the term was demonstrated in the study of research exchange programmes with US in postwar Germany (Jöns et al 2015). The authors found that these programmes attracted mostly scholars with “biographical ties to German-speaking central Europe” and that these researchers “were more likely to generate subsequent academic mobility and collaboration than their colleagues without such connections”, therefore their contribution to the development of American-German knowledge networks was significant (Ibid: 113, 125). The important role of foreign-born scientists and their connections to the home country was also demonstrated in a big GlobSci research project. Comparison of collaboration patterns of migrant and nonmigrant scholars across 16 countries led to the conclusion that “diaspora networks matter” as “a sizeable share of foreign born collaborate with researchers located in their country of origin and that migrants are also likely to collaborate with individuals from their home country who are working or studying in a third country” (Scellato, Franzoni, Stephan 2015: 1). Similar argument is found is the paper of Larner (2015) who shows that diasporic academics occupy central position in establishing and developing global knowledge networks.

Other type of evidence comes from studies looking at the composition of research collectives and teams in the US as a top country for recruitment of migrant scientists, having almost 40% of foreign-born scholars in the academy (Franzoni et al 2012). The investigation of Tanyildiz (2015) examined science and engineering laboratories in the country, comparing the ethnic composition of 164 organizations, with half of them (82) being directed by a foreign-born scholar (Chinese, Korean, Indian or Turkish). The study revealed that the share of international students is disproportionally higher in labs under guidance of migrant faculty, especially the share of students having the same nationality as the lab director, with the effect being more pronounced for Chinese students and for engineering labs. The conclusion is that composition of the research collectives is affected by ethnic/ national affinity and labs directed by foreign-born scholars “are more likely to be populated by students from the same country of origin than are labs directed by native faculty” (Ibid: 50). The study of Wagner (2014) also explored laboratories in the US and focused on the phenomenon of “ghetto labs” defined as “scientific teams composed of scientists of similar origins” or “mono-cultural research teams” (Ibid: 145). On the basis of ethnographic work and interviews with scientists the author shows that ghetto labs should not be confused with multicultural labs as they represent a distinctive type of research organization, with the majority of workers originating from the same home country. The author connects the emergence of this type of labs with internationalization of science and surmises that they arise as a response to the increasing competition and challenging professional requirements in the academy. The study also underlines the crucial role of principal investigator with migrant background in creating and sustaining ghetto labs as they are the main persons responsible for the choice and hiring research staff. Though lacking quantitative data to make substantial generalizations, the author observes that scholars coming from Western Europe typically integrate into multicultural teams, while scientists from Asia (China, Korea) and Eastern Europe (Russia, Poland) usually find themselves incorporated into ghetto labs.    

Thus, there is evidence that connections between scientists of one ethnicity, nationality or common origin, including ties between scientists in the host country and their compatriots abroad, act as one of the drivers of internationalization of science and formation of global networks of scientific collaboration. Migrant academics play a leading role in this process, initiating, facilitating and maintaining contacts with their colleagues in the country of origin. This evidence shows that, despite the widely shared view that academics are not prone to national or ethnic based biases, ethnic/ national belonging and diasporic connections retain their significance in academic setting and may exercise a considerable influence on the structure of scientific community and patterns of scientific cooperation. At the same time scientists with migrant background are difficult to identify and their diasporic scientific contacts are hard to detect, therefore as a rule these ties remain hidden in scientific collaboration research, being lost within the thick multiplicity of connections traced on the national or discipline level.   

Additional evidence of the important role of co-ethnicity and co-nationality in knowledge production and exchange is found in innovation studies. Ethnic networks were determined to serve as channels of knowledge and technology transfer on the basis of US patent citation data (Kerr 2007). Investigation of Indian inventors in the US showed that knowledge transfer was influenced by the level of involvement in their ethnic community (Almeida et al 2014). While access to ethnic knowledge and collaboration with other Indians generally increased the quality of innovation, the innovative capacity of those who are “heavily embedded in the community” (2014: 1) was unfavorably affected. The study of inventors with foreign origins residing in US and Europe discovered that ethnicity becomes a resource in building social connections between inventors – “co‐ethnicity can help reducing social distances from other inventors” – therefore ethnic ties are supposed to contain a considerable potential as “facilitators of knowledge diffusion” (Breschi, Lissoni 2013: 31). Another investigation came to the conclusion that co-ethnicity acts as a predictor and mediator of knowledge flows interacting with the factor of co-location: it serves as a substitute of geographical proximity and helps to reduce the effect of distance for inventors located far from each other (Agrawal et al 2008).  

Concerning industrial knowledge transfer, the study of furniture production region in Tanzania revealed that manufacturing techniques are acquired more effectively within ethnic minority groups, meaning that “ethnic networks facilitate knowledge exchange in an industrial cluster” (Chung 2012 : 1). Professional ethnic based associations and formation of local ethnic networks of Chinese, Indian and Taiwanese specialists in Silicon Valley were confirmed to significantly contribute to their professional and entrepreneurial success (Saxenian 1999, 2006). These works also demonstrated that specialists in the US were able to build and extend diasporic ties to the colleagues in the home country, linking Silicon Valley with emerging high-tech regions in Asia for their mutual benefit. Another study focused on regional development of technology in India found that specific combination of socio-cultural factors account for its uneven character: in South India, where the majority of successful IT companies is situated, it was a particular coupling of caste and regional culture which enabled the establishment of connections and knowledge exchange between professionals in the region and abroad to take place (Taeube 2004).

Evidence from innovation diffusion and industrial knowledge transfer studies demonstrates that ethnicity, nationality and wider cultural background act as a powerful factor in knowledge generation and transfer, it facilitates social connections and cooperation between highly skilled specialists and inventors and impacts their professional activities. Together with findings from scientific collaboration research it confirms the significant role of ethnicity, nationality and common origin for intellectual and knowledge work, for the formation and development of scientific networks. And it is especially remarkable that the significance of this factor is observed in the period of increasing internationalization of science and rising academic mobility and is probably activated because of these processes. But the questions how this factor influences the structure of scientific communities and affects scientific collaboration networks and what drives such diasporic cooperation remain to be explored which opens a wide area for further research.


1) Agrawal, A., Kapur, D., McHale, J. How Do Spatial and Social Proximity Influence Knowledge Flows? Evidence from Patent Data. Journal of Urban Economics, 09/2008; 64(2): 258-269.

2) Almeida, P., Phene, A., & Li, S. (2014). The Influence of Ethnic Community Knowledge on Indian Inventor Innovativeness. Organization Science.

3) Breschi, S., Lissoni, F. Foreign inventors in Europe and the US: Testing for Self‐Selection and Diaspora Effects. Draft for the conference « 7th Conference on Micro Evidence on Innovation in Developing Economies (MEIDE) », 2013

4) Chung, Yessica C.Y. Ethnic Networks and Technical Knowledge Learning in Industrial Clusters. JICA-RI Working Paper, 2012

5) Franzoni, C., Scellato, G., & Stephan, P. (2012). Foreign-born scientists: mobility patterns for 16 countries. Nature Biotechnology, 30(12), 1250-1253.

6) Jin, B., Rousseau, R., Suttmeier R.P., Cao, C. The role of ethnic ties in international collaboration: the Overseas Chinese Phenomenon/ Proceedings of the ISSI 2007, Madrid, pp. 427-436

7) Jonkers, K. Transnational research collaboration: An approach to the study of co-publications between overseas Chinese scientists and their mainland colleagues/ in Diaspora and transnationalism: concepts, theories and methods (pp.227-244), edited by Rainer Bauböck and Thomas Faist. Amsterdam, 2010

8) Jöns, H., Mavroudi, E., & Heffernan, M. (2015). Mobilising the elective diaspora: US–German academic exchanges since 1945. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40(1), 113-127.

9) Kerr W.P.. Ethnic ScientificCommunities and International Technology Diffusion. 2007 http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=24448

10) Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197-205.

11) Saxenian, A. The New Argonauts. Regional advantage in a global economy. 2006

12) Scellato, G., Franzoni, C., & Stephan, P. (2015). Migrant scientists and international networks. Research Policy, 44(1), 108-120.

13) Taeube, F.A. Proximities and Innovation Evidence from the Indian IT Industry in Bangalore. DRUID Working Paper No 04-10, 2004

14) Tanyildiz, Z.E. The Ethnic Composition of Science and Engineering Research Laboratories in the United States / International Migration, 2013

15) Wagner, I. Work and career aspects of “ghetto laboratories/ in (Re)searching scientific careers (edited by Katarina Prpić, Inge van der Weijden and Nadya Ascheulova). St Petersburg: Publishing House “Nestor-Historia” 2014 (pp.145-170)