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Who becomes an inventor?

Dec 4 2017
Raj's portrait

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but new research examines what spawns the inventor.

To spur innovation, it helps to have the right environment. And according to a comprehensive analysis by SIEPR Senior Fellow Raj Chetty and his colleagues, key factors that determine who becomes an inventor are coming up short for women, minorities and children from low-income families.

“There are many ‘lost Einsteins’ — individuals who would have had highly impactful inventions had they been exposed to innovation” as children, the researchers write in a working paper newly posted at the Equality of Opportunity Project, which is co-directed by Chetty.

The study used a new anonymized database linking patent records (from 1996 to 2014) with tax and school district records to track more than 1 million inventors from birth to adulthood. The researchers examined test scores, household income, and the rate of patents across America.

The empirical findings showed large disparities in innovation rates by socioeconomic class, race and gender. For instance, children from high-income families are 10 times more likely to become inventors than children from low-income families. The analysis also found that children growing up in a neighborhood or family with more inventors are much more likely to become inventors themselves.

The findings call for a greater focus on policies to provide more exposure to innovation in childhood, such as mentoring or internship programs, especially for children from under-represented groups who excel in math and science at early ages, the study contends.

And since innovation is widely viewed as an engine of economic growth, fostering more inventors may benefit the overall economy.

In addition to Chetty, the co-authors of the working paper titled “Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation” are: Alex Bell of Harvard; Xavier Jaravel, a former postdoctoral fellow at SIEPR now at the London School of Economics; Neviana Petkova of the Office of Tax Analysis at the U.S. Treasury; and John Van Reenen of MIT.