retired engineer
Photo by Hasan Albari:

by Evan Brown

Is American Society Subconsciously Playing Favorites?

In November 2018, several researchers from Harvard, MIT, and the London School of Economics published an extensive report titled “Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation”. This report explores who become inventors in America and why they do. This ultimately looks to examine the individual people who become inventors, as opposed to the more widely available work on innovation on a very large scale. The researchers examined their question of “who becomes an inventor in America?” by focusing largely on the “nature versus nurture” idea and how certain factors of American society and culture make uncontrollable characteristics key players in whether a child becomes an inventor or not.

One  factor that the paper examines is the incidence of patents in the area in which a child grows up – in other words, how much a child is surrounded by innovation. Those who are surrounded by a culture of innovation are more likely to be exposed to it – and hence more likely to begin to invent down the road. For example, at my elementary school, one day a week we would go to a class called “makerspace” for an hour. There, we were presented with lots of materials and encouraged to simply make whatever popped into our minds. It didn’t matter whether it was a better designed pencil box than the one we currently had or an airplane that we were going to fly halfway across the world; we were encouraged to make it. Having that environment that supports creativity as a child made me learn to embrace my imagination, not reject it. As a result, I now use my hands and get crafty whenever I have an idea of something to make, whether that be something functional that solves problems or something that I just think looks cool. For instance, just the other day I finished putting together four flagsticks for the putting green that I practice golf on. Could I easily have gone out and bought some? Absolutely, but because of the encouragement as a child to make, I was instead inclined to make the flagsticks for myself. 

For me, early childhood exposure to making led to an inclination toward inventing in my life thus far. As one can imagine, I was also brought up around adults who constantly made their own products, and some of whom actually made their living selling those products. The data from this paper shows that my case is not an outlier by any means, and is actually representative of the vast majority of cases. According to the report, there is a causal relationship between growing up in an area where people own many patents and an eventual disposition to inventing. Such a correlation has been shown to be 75% a result of the inventing-friendly environment often created by patent owners. Further, it has also been observed that a pattern of patents in a specific area of the economy (technology, medicine, agriculture, etc.) can strongly predict a child’s likelihood to eventually pursue innovation in that area. 

In this way, areas of American society that are more dedicated to inventing end up imprinting that dedication into their youth, often without even realizing it. While the authors of this report didn’t exactly outline policy recommendations moving forward, it can be inferred/understood from the benefits that they point out of being surrounded by an innovative environment that raising all children in areas with makerspaces and an encouragement for inventing would have a very positive long-term effect on innovation in the United States.