Data shows US inventors aren’t just good at science—they come from rich families

Potential energy.
Potential energy.
Image: Joel Kowsky/NASA/Handout via Reuters
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If you want to be an American inventor, you’ll need two things: to excel at math and science, and to have a rich family.

Five economists tracked over 1 million inventors from birth, and discovered several startling things. Children of parents from the top 1% of income are 10 times more likely to file a patent than the bottom 50%. White children, across all family incomes, are three times more likely to invent than black children. Only 18% of all the inventors are women. 

At the current rate, it would take 118 years to close the gender gap in innovation.

So what explains the disparity? Economists from Harvard, MIT, LSE, and the US Department of Treasury linked patent records to tax and school district records. They found that differences in ability have little to do with the likelihood of one day registering a patent. Children at the top of their 3rd grade math class were only more likely to become an inventor if their families were in the top 10% of income. High-scoring kids from poor or minority families? Unlikely to invent. Such results aren’t exclusive to inventors; a 2013 paper from economists at the University of California, Berkeley found that entrepreneurs were overwhelmingly white, male, highly educated and came from high income families.

Innovation—scientific discoveries, improved technology, gadgets that register as new patents—is a rocket-booster for economic growth. The US has spent millions in lost government revenue spurring invention—giving tax breaks to inventors, supporting lengthy patents, and funneling money into organizations like NASA.

But tax breaks might have limited results for innovation. The average patent holder earns $256,000 per year in her mid-40s. The star innovators—those who produce the most highly-cited patents and matter most for economic growth—earn more than $1 million, on average, each year. For the rare inventor who makes it, it’s unlikely a small change to her paycheck, one way or another, would influence her decision to innovate. And for the many unsuccessful, the tax breaks won’t matter. (That being said, a change in taxes could encourage economic growth through other channels.)

So how do you supercharge American innovation?

If women, minorities, and children from low-income families were to invent at the same rate as white men from the top 20%, the rate of innovation in America would quadruple. Since familial wealth—not aptitude—is the biggest missing ingredient for this group, the researchers call for mentoring programs, internships, or interventions through social networks. Target low-income children who excel at math and science. Pair young girls with female inventor-mentors.

The team also found that children who grew up in places with more inventors were more likely to invent themselves. Kids raised in Silicon Valley are especially prone to patenting in computers; children from Minneapolis—where medical manufacturers are prolific—were more likely to create medical devices.