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The Avenue

Invention, place, and economic inclusion

Joseph Parilla

American popular culture lionizes inventors for their ability to advance our nation’s knowledge-driven economy and transform our day-to-day lives. In a speech given last week in Pittsburgh, President Obama proclaimed that inventors reside at the core of America’s problem-solving ethic:

“America is about Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers—but we’re also the place you can grow up to be a Grace Hopper, or George Washington Carver, or a Katherine Johnson, or an Ida B. Wells. We don’t want somebody with a brilliant idea not in the room because they’re a woman. We don’t want some budding genius unavailable to cure cancer or come up with a new energy source because they were languishing in a sub-standard school as a child. Because we’re going to be a better team if we got the whole team.”

Unfortunately, we aren’t yet playing with the whole team. That was a clear takeaway from a paper released this summer, from a team led by Alex Bell and Raj Chetty, that examines the lifecycles of 1.2 million U.S. inventors (defined as patent holders or applicants). The report sheds new light on who inventors are, where they live, and how they acquire the skills needed to create new products and services.

So who are inventors? What drives their inventive nature?

For starters, inventors tend to be very good at math as children. The propensity to invent is much higher among children whose third-grade math test scores ranked in the top 10 percent nationwide.

In addition to being smart, though, it really helps to have rich parents. Among the highest-scoring test takers, children born into families with incomes in the top 20 percent of the income distribution are twice as likely to eventually file a patent than kids in households with incomes in the bottom 80 percent.

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Just as many behaviors are learned in childhood, children exposed to innovation at an early age are more likely to become inventors. Inventors’ kids file patents at nearly 10 times the rate of the children of non-inventors. The authors acknowledge that this relationship may result from some genetic predisposition to invent shared by parent and child, and note that children are nine times more likely to invent in the same technological sub-class as their parent(s). Since it’s likely that there is no gene that codes for a specific technology class, this provides further evidence that exposure matters.

This exposure dynamic extends beyond the family. Children that grow up in geographic areas with lots of inventors (see map below) are more likely to invent things themselves, although it’s unclear to what extent this type of non-familial exposure specifically causes children to become inventors later in life.

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Overall, children who are white, rich, male, and exposed to invention early in life are much more likely to invent than children who are non-white, poor, female, and socially and geographically isolated from innovation.

Of course, being an inventor is not the only path to a successful, enjoyable life. But this report is worrying for two reasons. First, it reinforces a growing body of evidence that United States remains far from providing equality of opportunity to all kids—in this case the opportunity to share in the fruits of invention—which is itself a collective moral failure.

Second, the constrained supply of inventors in the United States should worry anyone engaged in debates about the country’s innovation engine and future productivity. Clearly, America wastes a lot of potential talent by not—to extend the president’s metaphor—pulling more inventors off the bench in certain communities. Or, as the authors ask: “How many ‘lost Einsteins’ could there be due to inequality of opportunity?”

This brings us to the role of public policy. The authors argue that policies that draw more individuals into the innovation sector may be more effective in boosting overall innovation than policies that lower marginal tax rates or boost the R&D tax credit. In a future post, I’ll explore local efforts that could complement these macro policy reforms to build a broader, more diverse pool of potential inventors.

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