To get more women and minority inventors, we need data

In the coming weeks, US Senate negotiators will meet with their counterparts in the House to work out a compromise on a crucial piece of legislation — one that could make our country more innovative and economically competitive.

The US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) would increase federal funding for scientific research by $250 billion. That’s great, but it should also do something else: help create an environment where all potential American inventors are equipped for success, regardless of gender, race, or economic background. To do that, we need better information about who is inventing in America. USICA should contain provisions that would help to collect it.

Look at the disturbing statistics we do have. Women make up just over half of the U.S. population, but only 13% of all inventors named on U.S. patent applications, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Children from families in the top 1% of earners are 10 times more likely to become inventors than children from lower-than-average families, according to a 2018 article by economists at Harvard University.

And while about 13% of the US-born population is black, they make up less than 1% of US-born inventors, according to a survey by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Michigan State University researchers found that between 1976 and 2008, black Americans received six patents per million people, compared to 235 patents per million for the entire US population. More recent data on racial representation among patent holders is hard to come by – and that’s exactly the problem.

There are many reasons for these inequalities, from historical inequalities in access to capital and the innovation ecosystem, to ongoing cultural pressures and lack of economic and educational opportunities. Whatever the reasons, this lack of diversity has a serious negative impact. We know that intellectual property (IP) innovators are more likely to get funding to build a business, and that IP-intensive industries contribute disproportionately to our GDP and generate better-paying jobs than non-IP-intensive industries.

Thus, the lack of diversity of our inventors contributes to a cycle in which individuals from underrepresented communities are excluded from the high-income jobs that are likely to help them break through. America cannot afford to leave an inventor or good idea behind. Expanding participation in innovation would improve economic growth, improve quality of life and create more opportunities for individual Americans.

How are we going to do that? It starts with better and more current demographics. Because “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” as management guru Peter Drucker liked to put it. And the USPTO, the only agency that processes all patent applications in this country, doesn’t actually have the authority to collect data on the demographics of its applicants. The data out there is therefore generated by various researchers across the country who are doing their best to estimate and extrapolate incomplete information.

That’s where the Inventor Diversity for Economic Advancement (IDEA) Act comes in handy. A bipartisan bill originally introduced by Senators Hirono, Tillis, Coons and Leahy, the goal is simply better measurement.

The bill would allow the USPTO to voluntarily collect demographic information about inventors — race, gender, income level, veteran status and other factors. That would give us a much more complete picture of the people building breakthrough technology, as well as who is left behind. We’d have a better idea of ​​where to allocate limited resources, for example through children’s educational programs — like Camp Invention — to underrepresented groups or funding for women and minorities in STEM.

Not collecting this data sends a bad signal — that we don’t really care who invents and who doesn’t. You follow what matters to you, and you care about what you follow. We value our creators and innovators, and the data generated by the IDEA Act empowers us to help them even more.

If America wants to lead the world in technological innovation, we can’t bear “lost Einsteins,” as one study called children who never get the chance to become high-impact inventors. Therefore, Congress should either include the IDEA Act as part of USICA or pass it as a standalone bill.

Michelle K. Lee was a former Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the US Patent and Trademark Office from 2015-2017, becoming the first woman and first person of color to hold the position. Andrei Iancu served as Deputy Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the US Patent and Trademark Office from 2018 to 2021.

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