Kids of the 1% are 10 times more likely to become inventors

A new study warns of millions of "lost Einsteins."

  • A new study reveals the economic class from which most U.S. inventors come.
  • Wealth, race, and gender are all factors in innovation.
  • Exposure to innovators and inventions in childhood can bridge the gap.

A just-released comparison of patent records and tax and school-district records has produced a stunning picture of a critical form of inequality in the U.S. The Equality of Opportunity project, led by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty, has found that children of families in the well-off 1% are 10 times more likely to file a patent application during their lifetimes than children of less affluent families. In addition, white kids are three times as likely to patent, and a whopping 82% of young inventors are male.

Together, these figures represent a loss of potentially millions of young "lost Einsteins." The authors estimate the U.S. would have four times as many innovators if this disparity could be addressed. Fortunately, according to the same data, they see a fix: Regular exposure to innovation and innovators during childhood.

The 1% advantage

The researchers analyzed a new de-identified database of 1.2 million inventors in which patent records are linked to tax and school-district records. This allows the tracing of inventors' lives from birth onward. The relationship to patenting and family wealth is stark.

(Chetty, et al)

Patent rates vs. family income

It’s not an issue of talent

The benefits of coming from wealth also show up in what happens to students from different economic classes with equally exceptional math talent over time. Kids who do well at math in 3rd grade are far more likely to become inventors, but only if they come from affluent families. "Put differently," says the study, "becoming an inventor relies upon two things in America: excelling in math and science and having a rich family." By high school the students' scores dramatically diverge.

(Chetty, et al)

Patent rates vs. 3rd grade math test scores for children of low- vs. high-income parents

Exposure by location

One way to promote exposure to innovation during childhood is to live in the right area. The study identifies a correlation between geography and an innovative future. "Children who grow up in areas with more inventors — and are thereby more exposed to innovation while growing up — are much more likely to become inventors themselves." More specifically, "Exposure influences not just whether a child grows up to become an inventor but also the type of inventions he or she produces." People raised in Silicon Valley, though now living in, say, Boston are more likely to be inventors in computing-related fields. (Of course, family wealth is a prerequisite to living in the pricey Bay area.) Likewise, "those who grew up in Minneapolis — which has many medical device manufacturers — are especially likely to patent in medical devices."

(Chetty, et al)

Patent rates by area where children grow up

Exposure to innovator role models

The data also show a strong influence of parents' own innovative work on a child's future patents. Especially striking, and demonstrating the connection, is that if a parent holds one or more patents, their child is likely to apply for patents in exactly the same field.

The benefits of role models also align with gender: "Women are more likely to invent in a given technology class if they grew up in an area with many female inventors in that technology class," says the study. The presence of male inventors has no such effect on girls. Likewise, boys are more likely to be innovators when they've known male inventors.

Encouragingly, while there are still many more male inventors than women, the gap is already shrinking. In a separate article in The Conversation, the authors of the study write that this disparity gets smaller every year. So looking forward, girls should have an ever-stronger likelihood of female inventors being around.

"If girls were exposed to female inventors during childhood at the same rate that boys are to male inventors, the gender gap in innovation would fall by half," write the study authors.

(Pan-Ziaozhen)

Leveling the playing field

In The Conversation article, the authors conclude: "Together, our findings call for greater focus on policies and programs to tap into our country's underutilized talents by increasing exposure to innovation for girls and kids from underprivileged backgrounds. It may be particularly beneficial to focus on children who do well in math and science at early ages." They single out mentorship programs and guidance counselors who consider kids' long-term futures.

Certainly, the report makes clear that any parent who wants to foster a child's innovative side should see if there are innovators nearby who can share their process with a curious young mind.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.