Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation

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Authors: Alex Bell, Harvard University Raj Chetty, Harvard University and NBER Xavier Jaravel, London School of Economics Neviana Petkova, Office of Tax Analysis, US Treasury John Van Reenen, MIT and Centre for Economic Performance

Abstract: We characterize the factors that determine who becomes an inventor in the United States, focusing on the role of inventive ability (“nature”) vs. environment (“nurture”). Using deidentified data on 1.2 million inventors from patent records linked to tax records, we first show that children’s chances of becoming inventors vary sharply with characteristics at birth, such as their race, gender, and parents’ socioeconomic class. For example, children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families. These gaps persist even among children with similar math test scores in early childhood – which are highly predictive of innovation rates – suggesting that the gaps may be driven by differences in environment rather than abilities to innovate. We then directly establish the importance of environment by showing that exposure to innovation during childhood has significant causal effects on children’s propensities to invent. Children whose families move to a high-innovation area when they are young are more likely to become inventors. These exposure effects are technology-class and gender specific. Children who grow up in a neighborhood or family with a high innovation rate in a specific technology class are more likely to patent in exactly the same class. Girls are more likely to invent in a particular class if they grow up in an area with more women (but not men) who invent in that class. These gender- and technology class-specific exposure effects are more likely to be driven by narrow mechanisms such as role model or network effects than factors that affect general human capital accumulation, such as the quality of schools. Consistent with the importance of exposure effects in career selection, women and disadvantaged youth are as under-represented among high-impact inventors as they are among inventors as a whole. These findings suggest that there are many “lost Einsteins” – individuals who would have had highly impactful inventions had they been exposed to innovation in childhood – especially among women, minorities, and children from low-income families.

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The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.