Students with the potential to be America’s next Einstein can be
identified in elementary school, yet most won’t grow up to be
innovators. So where’s the disconnect? Researchers from the Equality of
Opportunity Project examined patents, tax records, and test scores to
determine which kids grow up to become inventors in the United
States—and which ones do not. According to the findings, limitations
that begin early in life help dictate whether a given American will
contribute transformational ideas to society.
“I was a little shocked that you could know so much just by third
grade about who’s going to become an inventor based on science and math
test scores,” says Alex Bell, a doctoral student at Harvard and lead
author of the study.
But even top-scoring students weren’t much more likely to grow up to be
innovators unless they were boys from white, upper-class backgrounds.
Children from the top 1% of household incomes were 10 times as likely to
become inventors when they grew up as their middle- and low-income
peers. White children were three times as likely as black children, and
girls go on to hold just 18% of patents in the U.S.
Decreasing these disparities hinges on changing a student’s
environment and correcting a lack of exposure to innovation. Proximity
to inventors made children more likely to grow up to become patent
holders, specifically in the same fields as their parents or other
adults in their communities. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Bell
says. “Having a mentor or a role model that’s in some sense similar to
you is important.”
Imagine a world where, for example, girls saw women inventors as
often as boys see men inventors. Recognizing the problem, then, is the
first step to retaining these lost Einsteins. “This is not just the
lives of the people who fall out of the pipeline that we’re talking
about,” Bell says. “This is something very important to all of society.”
Grace Donnelly , Data reporter at Fortune magazine