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  • December 16, 2020

Hidden genius

Particpants of Dhaka regional math Olympiad cheer in January 2018.

Nurunnaby Chowdhury/Wikimedia Commons

Identifying and nurturing innovators who produce groundbreaking research is essential to economic growth.

Unfortunately, a lot of young talent from poorer countries don’t realize their potential.

In the American Economic Review: Insights, authors Ruchir Agarwal and Patrick Gaule examine whether individuals who excelled at math as teenagers had more productive research careers. Indeed, they found that teens who scored well in the International Mathematical Olympiad, a global math competition, were more likely to get a PhD, publish and collect citations for their research, and win the prestigious Fields Medal

But their career success was also tied to where they were born.




Figure 3 from Agarwal and Gaule (2020)


The figure above plots the share of Olympiad participants who obtained a PhD in math by points scored at the competition and across different groups of countries. Generally, high-income countries (the black line) had a greater share of PhDs throughout the score distribution. That was followed by upper-middle-income countries (green), lower-middle-income countries (grey), and then low-income countries (blue) had the lowest share.

Their research highlights that policies to encourage talented youth to pursue scientific careers—especially those from poorer countries—could advance the knowledge frontier faster.