“There are very large gaps in innovation by income, race, and gender,” Stanford economist Raj Chetty, who led the research, told The Atlantic. “These gaps don’t seem to be about differences in ability to innovate — they seem directly related to environment.”
Chetty, who appeared on Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list in 2014, worked with Alex Bell of Harvard, Xavier Jaravel of the London School of Economics, Neviana Petkova of the U.S. Treasury Department, and John Van Reener of MIT to link together millions of anonymized tax records, patents, and test scores in order to create a sample of 1.2 million inventors to study.
The researchers examined this sample to determine what indicators are the best predictors of a child who has the potential to grow up to be an inventor. They found that although students from many backgrounds had high scores in math and science, it’s household income that best predicts the children who went on to secure patents.
Students with parents in the top 1% of income distribution were ten times more likely to become inventors than children with parents earning below-median incomes.
This means the United States is missing out on potential breakthroughs from “lost Einsteins” in lower income households.
“Creativity is broadly distributed. Opportunity is not,” AOL founder Steve Case told the New York Times, while commenting on the study.
White children are three times as likely to become patent-holders as black children and only 18% of inventors are women. Even then, many of them appear on patents with men. Just 8% of patents are held by women alone.
These gaps may be due to the difference in access and exposure to innovators and researchers at a young age. The study found that children who grew up around a particular type of invention or inventor were far more likely to follow along the same path.
The research found that girls who grew up in areas with more women inventors, such as central New Jersey or Honolulu, were more likely to become inventors than their peers from other parts of the country. This suggests that connecting young people with innovators and researchers early on could unlock economic growth that the U.S. is currently missing out on due to disparities in opportunity.
“Opportunity might be vital for economic growth even if you don’t care about inequality or fairness concerns,” Chetty said. “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.”