Poor, female and minority children are far less likely to be exposed to a culture of innovation as they grow up, meaning they are less likely to become inventors — a fact that has serious economic implications.
That’s the finding from a new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project at Stanford University that could influence decisions made by Maine policymakers and local leaders as they try to boost the creation of new products to spur economic growth.
In the past, they may have focused on financial incentives or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to increase entrepreneurialism.
“Our results point to a different channel — exposure to innovation during childhood — as a critical factor that determines who becomes an inventor,” wrote the researchers, led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty, in the landmark study that examined the lives of 1.2 million inventors by linking patent records to tax and school district records.
The people most likely to be exposed to innovation grow up in wealthier homes. Children from the top 1 percent are 10 times more likely to eventually become inventors who file a patent than children whose parents make less than the nation’s median income, the study found.
Differences in academic test scores don’t explain the disparity. Both high- and low-scoring low-income students are about equally unlikely to become inventors — showing that it’s not a lack of academic accomplishment that’s preventing poorer kids from going on to patent something new.
Rather, whether kids grow up in a place with other inventors influences whether they will go on to innovate.
“There are many ‘lost Einsteins’ – individuals who would have had highly impactful inventions had they been exposed to innovation,” according to the study.
Interestingly, how someone is exposed to innovation can affect not just the likelihood they’ll become an inventor but what they’ll invent, the study found. Researchers determined that growing up in a neighborhood or family that patented a specific class of products, such as a type of antenna, means a child has a higher chance of one day patenting a type of antenna.
And women are more likely to become inventors if they grow up in areas with many female inventors. Men’s innovation rates, meanwhile, are influenced by male, not female, role models in their area.
On the whole, whites are three times more likely than blacks to become inventors, and only about 18 percent of inventors — nationally and in Maine — are women. Maine also finds itself about in the middle of all the states for its share of children who go on to become inventors.
If women, minorities and those who grew up in low-income homes invented at the same rate as high-income white men, the United States would have four times as many inventors.
“Opportunity might be vital for economic growth even if you don’t care about inequality or fairness concerns,” Chetty said in an interview with The Atlantic. “If you give kids from lower-income families better training and better opportunities, maybe they would end up contributing more to the economy and that would help everyone essentially.”