Who grows up to be the country's most successful inventors? It helps if you're a kid with top-notch math skills--but race, class, and gender are far bigger factors, according to new research

On Jan. 11, Stanford economics professor Raj Chetty and his colleagues from the Equality of Opportunity Project spoke at a conference held by the Washington, D.C., think tank Brookings Institution about new findings on who becomes inventors in the U.S.

"What if these kids on the bottom of the income distribution innovated at the same rate as the kids who come from higher income families?" said Chetty at the conference. "We would have dramatically more high-impact patents that could change technology, medical progress, change our lives in many ways." 

The U.S. has taken a number of policy approaches aimed at increasing the country's innovation output, from boosting STEM education programs to offering tax incentives on R&D research. The effectiveness of these policies is debated, however, partly due to the lack of data on who's doing the innovating in America, according to Chetty.

The research, published in December, suggests that a penchant for inventing may have a lot to do with race, class, and gender. Whites are more than three times as likely to become inventors as blacks. Children from high-income families are 10 times as likely to become inventors as those from low-income families. The results are similar when looking at minorities and women. While the gender gap in innovation in shrinking, at the current rate, the authors argue that it will still take another 118 years to fully close the gap. In other words, wealthy, white men are the ones who tend to best set up to succeed as inventors.

Economics researchers from Stanford, MIT, and the U.S. Treasury analyzed data on over 1.2 million U.S. inventors and linked U.S. patents and grants from 1996 to 2014 to federal income tax returns. The researchers tracked the lives of these people in an effort to identify factors that determine who becomes an inventor and the types of policies that may be most effective in nurturing more innovation.

They found that upbringing has a huge impact on the path of would-be inventors. According to their research, a child from a low-income background with math scores on par with a child from a high-income background is still less likely to become an inventor. To be sure, test scores are not a perfect measure of ability or potential to succeed. "In 3rd grade, 30 percent of the gap in innovation is by differences in test scores, [but] there's a steady progression over time," said Chetty.

The research also suggests environment plays a role. Moving from New Orleans to Austin (considered a highly innovative city) can increase a person's chances of becoming an inventor by up to 50 percent. Despite what the demographic numbers suggest, the researchers say that being surrounded by like-minded, or similarly-looking people may decrease your chances. 

When it comes to developing policies to increase diversity among inventors, mentorship and internships can help. "It's not something that the data really speaks to, but it makes sense mentoring programs, and sort of tinkering programs, might be effective," said Alex Bell, one of the authors on the paper.

One bright spot in the research? If you've never fulfilled your childhood desire to dream up a brilliant product, it may not be too late. The researchers say that those who go on to become high-achieving inventors and have prominent scientific impact are often in their mid-forties. 

Published on: Jan 12, 2018