Missing Einsteins

A few weeks ago I posted an essay on 'lost potential'.

Further evidence arrives on just how much is lost, this time from the US.

Alexander M. Bell, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova and John Van Reenen report (here)  on their research into the question: who becomes an inventor?

They find:

  • children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families. There are similarly large gaps by race and gender. 

  • exposure to innovation during childhood has significant causal effects on children's propensities to become inventors. Growing up in a neighborhood or family with a high innovation rate in a specific technology class leads to a higher probability of patenting in exactly the same technology class. 

  • the financial returns to inventions are extremely skewed, and women and disadvantaged youth are as under-represented among high-impact inventors as they are among inventors as a whole. 

They conclude:

"We develop a simple model of inventors' careers that matches these empirical results. The model implies that increasing exposure to innovation in childhood may have larger impacts on innovation than increasing the financial incentives to innovate, for instance by cutting tax rates. In particular, there are many “lost Einsteins” — individuals who would have had highly impactful inventions had they been exposed to innovation."

(Another study - 'The Social Origin of Inventors' - comes to a similar conclusion: that parental income is a greater determinant of being a successful inventor than how clever you are.)

We've come a long way, baby; but there's still a long way to go.  As the authors explain: "if women, minorities, and children from low-income families were to invent at the same rate as white men from high-income (top 20 percent) families, the rate of innovation in America would quadruple."


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