The Exodus Equation: Study Shows Russian Math Geniuses Excelling In West

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(RFE/RL – – Antoine Blua – January 24, 2016)

The massive exodus of scientists since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union is a known phenomenon that has greatly affected the field of mathematics.

More than 30 speakers invited to address the 1986 International Congress of Mathematicians in California came from the Soviet Union — most of them from Russia. In 2010, only five speakers at the congress, held in India that year, were affiliated with Russian universities.

In a new study, two Moscow-based academics attempt to quantify what Russia — a traditional math power — has lost in the outflow of mathematicians.

Vladlen Timorin and Ivan Sterligov of the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) analyzed papers published in 25 non-Russian “pure mathematics journals” by people with common Russian last names.

The pair found that, in 1994, some 70 percent of these publications came from Russian institutions, but that proportion dropped to about 50 percent by 1997, and has since stabilized.

More than one-third of the Russian mathematicians who moved to the West from 1993 to 2015 went to the United States, with France being a distant second.

The study — A Metric View On Russian Mathematics And Russian Mathematical Diaspora — was published in the Winter 2015 issue of Higher Education In Russia And Beyond, a journal published by HSE.

Timorin, professor and dean of mathematics at HSE, told RFE/RL that Russian mathematicians who emigrated are “able to find good academic positions abroad,” are on average doing better academically than those who stayed, and appear to be more productive than native-born scientists in their host countries.

Between 1992 and 2008, the study says, the average Russian migrant published 20 more papers than the average American mathematician, and those papers received 143 more citations.

According to a 2012 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, nonprofit group based in Massachusetts, the arrival of “Soviet mathematicians” in the United States made the market more competitive.

“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,” the authors said.

With an estimated 1,000 mathematicians having left Russia for the United States, Timorin and Sterligov said “Russian mathematics has lost its best representatives.”

The emigration of many leading Russian mathematicians, they added, has “dramatically weakened both higher education and research in Russia.”

According to the paper, each of the mathematicians of Russian origin who have been awarded a Fields Medal — an honor regarded as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics — have permanent positions in the West. And the only exception is Grigori Perelman, who no longer works for Russian institutions.

Despite this grim assessment, there is some cause for optimism in Russia.

The number of researchers with Russian affiliations stabilized at about 50 percent, and the share of double affiliations — both with Russian and Western institutions — has grown to about one-quarter.

And despite the exodus, the study said, “Russian mathematical output stands surprisingly high.”

“Even [though] it’s traditional in Russia to publish in Russian [math] journals — and these journals are very good — if you look at publications in the best Western journals, Russia is among the top seven or eight countries,” Timorin said.

However, he said that “no significant progress is visible.”

Article from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – – ©2016 RFE/RL, Inc. Article also appeared at