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Finding the lost Einsteins

What is the connection between the income of a child’s parents and his or her chances to become an inventor? And how long would it take to close the gender gap in innovation at the current rate?

These questions and others were the subject of a study of Opportunity Insights, a research group based at Harvard University that analyzes big data to examine how to improve social mobility, and works with other stakeholder to translate the research findings into policy action.

The study, titled “Lost Einsteins: Innovation and Opportunity in America”, tried to identify the factors that stimulate innovation. It tracked the lives of more than a million inventors in the US, linking scientific patent data to tax records and school test scores.

The researchers found large disparities in innovation rates by socioeconomic class, race and gender. For example, children from families in the top 1% of the income scale are ten times more likely to become inventors than those with below-median income parents.

How can we explain such disparity? Maybe children from low-income families have less ability, or tend to choose other, less challenging occupations. On the other hand, maybe they have similar talents and preferences, but lack resources or role models.

The graph below proves that differences in initial ability explain very little. It shows that children who were at the top of their 3rd grade math class (those on the far right on the x-axis) are much more likely to become inventors – but only if they come from high-income families.

Looking at the gender gap in innovation, the study found that only 18% of inventors are female. In other words, boys are five times more likely to become inventors than girls. The gap is closing over time, but too slowly: only 0.27% per year. At this rate, we would have to wait nearly 120 years to reach gender parity…

Why does it matter? Because these disparities represent a huge untapped potential – “lost Einsteins” who could have had high-impact inventions. If women, minorities and underprivileged children were to invent at the same rate as men from high-income families, the researchers estimates that the rate of innovation in America would quadruple!

In order for this to happen – and this applies to Israel too – the main recommendation of the study is to increase the exposure to innovation of children and youth, especially those from under-represented groups in science and technology fields.

The Shift Community operated by Rashi’s Cyber Education Center, is a good example of an initiative taking this approach. Within the community, female students of computer science and high-tech engineers provide guidance and inspire technology-oriented teenage girls, who also act as a support group for each other.


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