In the coming weeks, negotiators from the U.S. Senate will meet with their House counterparts to hash out a compromise on a critical piece of legislation -- one that could make our nation more innovative and economically competitive.
The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) would boost federal funding for scientific research by $250 billion. That's great, but it also needs to do something else: help create an environment in which all potential American inventors are equipped for success, regardless of gender, race, or economic background. To do that, we need better information on who is doing the inventing in America. USICA should include provisions that would help gather it.
Consider the troubling statistics we do have. Women make up slightly more than half 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 as likely to become inventors as those from families with below the median income, a 2018 paper by Harvard University economists found.
And, while about 13% of the U.S.-born population is Black, they make up less than 1% of United States-born inventors, according to a survey by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Researchers at Michigan State University found that between 1976 and 2008, Black Americans were awarded six patents per million people, while across the whole U.S. population, the figure was 235 patents per million people. More recent data on racial representation among patent holders is hard to come by -- which is precisely the problem.
There are many reasons for these disparities, from historical inequality of access to capital and the innovation ecosystem, to ongoing cultural pressures, to lack of economic and educational opportunities. Irrespective of the reasons, this lack of diversity has a serious negative impact. We know that innovators with intellectual property (IP) assets are more likely to obtain funding to build a business, and that IP-intensive industries contribute disproportionately to our GDP, and generate higher 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 shut out of the high-income jobs that are most likely to help them break through. America can't afford to leave any inventor or good idea behind. Expanding participation in innovation would enhance economic growth, improve quality of life, and create more opportunities for individual Americans.
How do we go about doing that? It starts with better and more current demographic data. Because "if you can't measure it, you can't improve it," as management guru Peter Drucker liked to say. And the USPTO, the sole agency that processes all patent applications in this country, does not actually have the authority to collect data on the demographics of its applicants. The data that does exist, therefore, is generated by various researchers around the country doing their best to estimate and extrapolate from incomplete information.
That's where the Inventor Diversity for Economic Advancement (IDEA) Act comes in. A bipartisan bill originally introduced by Senators Hirono, Tillis, Coons, and Leahy, its goal is simply better measurement.
The bill would enable the USPTO to collect demographic data on a voluntary basis about inventors -- race, gender, income level, veteran status, and other factors. That would give us a much fuller picture of the people building breakthrough technology, and also who's getting left behind. We'd have a better idea of where to allocate limited resources, for example through kids' educational programs -- like Camp Invention -- to underrepresented groups or funding for women and minorities in STEM.
The failure to collect this data sends a bad signal -- that we don't care all that much about who is inventing and who is not. You track what you care about, and you care about what you track. We value our creators and innovators, and the data generated by the IDEA Act will enable us to help support them even more.
If America wants to lead the world in technological innovation, we can't abide "lost Einsteins," as one study called children who never get the opportunity to become high-impact inventors. That's why Congress should include the IDEA Act as part of USICA or pass it as a stand-alone bill.
Michelle K. Lee served as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 2015-2017, and was the first woman and first person of color to hold the position. Andrei Iancu served as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 2018 to 2021.