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What’s the face of U.S innovation? Don’t think Bill Gates
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What’s the face of U.S. innovation? Don’t think Bill Gates

The archetypal U.S. innovator is not a young white college dropout building a startup in his garage, argues a wide-ranging new study of the demographics of U.S. innovators.

Rather than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,  a middle-aged male Ph.D. toiling at a large U.S. firm—and perhaps born abroad—is more likely to be behind the next big thing, conclude researchers from George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia, and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington, D.C.–based think tank.

“Contrary to popular conceptions about precocious college dropouts with big ideas, U.S. innovators actually tend to be experienced and highly educated,” concludes the study, which is based on a survey of more than 900 people associated with “meaningful and marketable” recent inventions. In addition, nearly half are immigrants or children of immigrants.

But the research does confirm one stereotype: Just 12% of innovators were women, and less than 8% of those born in the United States were a member of a minority group. “Unfortunately … women and U.S.-born minorities are significantly underrepresented,” says lead author Adams Nager, a policy analyst at ITIF.

A patent search

Researchers have long tried to paint a portrait of the relatively small group of people who invent the technologies and products, from new software to life-saving drugs, which mold economies and reshape societies. Some have examined how these innovators are educated, for instance, whereas others have explored how work settings relate to successful innovation. But researchers hadn’t tried to capture a detailed demographic snapshot of the men and women who are “now driving innovation in the United States,” says David Hart, a political scientist at GMU and a co-author of the new study.

To assemble that picture, the researchers first identified “high-value innovations” in the United States between 2011 and 2015, as well as the people behind them. To find the innovations, they scoured R&D Magazine’s annual list of the top technologies introduced into the market, and sampled databases of so-called triadic patents filed in the United States, Europe, and Japan. (Such patents tend to reflect the most promising innovations, the authors argue, because they are expensive and time-consuming to obtain.) Overall, the team assembled a list of 2651 innovations (not all have yet been commercialized), together with the names of 9575 people connected to them. Then, the researchers emailed a 27-question survey to about 6400 of the innovators, producing 923 usable surveys. “There were points where I thought we might not get it done,” Hart says. “This was difficult research.”

Many of the survey’s findings confirm and deepen insights from previous research about who innovates, say the authors and other experts. (Click here to see visualizations that summarize the data.) And the study forcefully challenges some stereotypes reinforced by popular media. For example, although youthful, lone-wolf inventors and struggling startups often win headlines, the survey suggests that being older, better educated, and working at a big company is an advantage for innovators. Their median age was 47, for instance, and 56% had doctoral degrees. Nearly 60% worked in firms with more than 500 employees, whereas only 16% worked in firms with fewer than 25 employees. And although the study notes that “the popular narrative today [is] that large firms are sluggish copiers and small firms the true innovators,” the authors found that the larger firms produced nearly 60% of the innovations.

Immigrants have made a major impact on U.S. innovation. More than one-third of the innovators were born outside the United States, despite immigrants comprising less than 14% of the U.S. population. An additional 10% had at least one immigrant parent. “Immigrants born in Europe or Asia are over five times more likely to have created an innovation in America than the average native-born U.S. citizen,” the authors note. That suggests the country should go out of its way to craft policies aimed at attracting high-skill immigrants, they conclude.

U.S.-born minorities, meanwhile, barely registered in the survey. Just 8% of U.S.-born innovators are Asian, African-American, Hispanic, or a member of another minority group; these groups account for 32% of the U.S. population. The authors say the United States needs to do more to attract individuals from underrepresented groups into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, and retain them.

There’s also a stark gender imbalance. Women comprise just 10% of U.S.-born innovators, and 15% of foreign-born inventors. That means “the average male born in the United States is nine times more likely to contribute to an innovation than the average female,” the authors note. They speculate that foreign-born female innovators may be disproportionately attracted to the United States because of greater bias and fewer opportunities at home.

Possible gains?

The sparse representation of women in the sample may nonetheless represent some recent gains, says John Walsh, a science policy specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who was not involved in the study. Similar research on innovators in the early 2000s that he conducted found that just 5% were women. “So, at first blush, it looks like the portion of women may be going up—which wouldn’t shock me,” he told ScienceInsider.

Walsh says the new study represents “a nice set of data” that scholars and policymakers will be chewing on for some time.