Groundbreaking ITIF Study Reveals Demographic Traits of U.S. Innovators; Immigrants Play Key Role, Women and US-Born Minorities Are Underrepresented

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Highly educated immigrants play an outsized role in driving technological progress in the United States, while women and minorities are significantly underrepresented among the country’s innovators, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation reported today in a first-of-its-kind study.

Highly educated immigrants play an outsized role in driving technological progress in the United States, while women and minorities are significantly underrepresented among the country’s innovators, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) reported today in a first-of-its-kind study.

To paint a detailed portrait of who contributes most to technological innovation in America, ITIF conducted an in-depth survey, gathering responses from more than 900 individuals who have won prestigious awards for their creations or have applied for international patents likely to have significant economic impact. The study found that the demographics of U.S. innovation are strikingly different from the demographics of the country as a whole—and even from the demographics of college-educated Americans, or those with a Ph.D. in science or engineering.

“There are some well-established stereotypes about who innovates in America, but it turns out many of them are wrong,” said Adams Nager, ITIF economic policy analyst and the study’s lead author. “People may think technological innovation is driven by precocious college dropouts at startup companies, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. In reality, America’s innovators are far more likely to be immigrants with advanced degrees who have paid their dues through years of work in large companies. Unfortunately, one stereotype that turns out to be true is that women and U.S.-born minorities are significantly underrepresented. In fact, the extent of that gap is so stark that it caught us by surprise.”

Titled "The Demographics of Innovation in the United States," ITIF’s report was authored by Nager along with George Mason University Professor David Hart, ITIF Vice President for Global Innovation Policy Stephen Ezell, and ITIF President and Founder Robert D. Atkinson. After providing a thorough review of existing literature on the subject, the authors present original findings on the demographics of innovation in America—including the gender, ethnicity, country of origin, education, and age of the individuals involved—as well as settings and circumstances for their innovations, such as the institution (or institutions) behind the advances, their commercial status, and their funding sources.

Among the report’s key demographic findings:

-More than one-third of U.S. innovators (35.5 percent) were born outside the country, even though first-generation immigrants comprise just 13.5 percent of the total population. Another 10 percent of U.S. innovators had at least one immigrant parent.

-Women represent just 11.7 percent of U.S. innovators. This constitutes a smaller percentage than the female share of undergraduate degree recipients in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), or STEM Ph.D. students, or working scientists and engineers.

-U.S.-born minorities (including Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other ethnicities) make up just 8 percent of U.S.-born innovators, even though these groups account for 32 percent of the country’s total population.

-Despite comprising 13 percent of the native-born population of the United States, African Americans comprise just half a percent of U.S.-born innovators.

-The median age at which respondents produced their innovations was 47, implying years of work experience and deep knowledge in STEM fields.

-Half of innovators majored in some form of engineering as an undergraduate, and over 90 percent majored in a STEM subject as an undergraduate.

-Four-fifths of innovators possess at least one advanced degree, and 55 percent have attained a Ph.D. in a STEM subject. Among innovators born abroad, two-thirds hold Ph.Ds. in a STEM subject.

Among the key findings about the settings and circumstances in which innovation occurs:

-Approximately 60 percent of private-sector innovations originate from businesses with more than 500 employees, and 16 percent originate from firms with fewer than 25 employees.

-Controlling for population, the mid-Atlantic and New England states tended to produce the most international patents in life sciences, materials sciences, and information technology, with Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Rhode Island leading.

-Nearly one in five survey respondents said their innovations were the product of collaborative efforts—and half of those came from public-private partnerships.

-Among the 30 percent of survey respondents who said they faced barriers to commercializing their innovations, 9 percent said they faced regulatory challenges, and 16 percent said they lacked funding for further development efforts.

“When you consider what this portrait of American innovation looks like today, there are clear opportunities for policymakers to both broaden and deepen the national pool of STEM talent,” said Atkinson. “It is very clear that we need to do a much better job enabling women and minorities to earn STEM degrees. We also need to make it easier for immigrants with STEM degrees to work and contribute their expertise to America’s innovation ecosystem.”

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