Inventors and innovators create the new products and services that improve lives. But they tend to come from a narrow section of society: typically, wealthy, male and white.
What can we do about this? Research in the United States (Bell et al) has suggested that exposure to innovation in childhood has a significant effect on the likelihood of becoming an inventor later in life. We want to know if the same holds true for the UK, and, if so, what can be done to promote exposure to innovation. What does this look like in practice, and what do we know works?
Our research questions form four main strands:
- Who participates in innovation in the UK? Here we’re focusing on three fields of activity within innovation: patenting, social entrepreneurship, and business startups.
- What childhood factors influence likelihood to become an innovator later in life?
- What is already being done in and around schools to increase participation in innovation among school-age children, and particularly among underrepresented groups?
- What is the evidence base for these interventions where they exist - what do we know about what works?
We’ve commissioned AlphaPlus, an education consultancy, to support us with this work.
By linking data from patent applications and registrations, tax records and school districts, Bell et al explored the influence of family background, areas people grew up in, school attainment and a range of other factors on individuals’ likelihood to become inventors (measured through patent applications/registrations) in adulthood.
They found that women, minorities, and children from low-income families are all far less likely to become inventors than white men from high-income (top 20 per cent) families. Significantly, they also found that children who have been ‘exposed’ to innovation (as a result of their parents’ occupation or as a result of growing up in an area with a high concentration of inventors) are more likely to go on to become inventors themselves.
The researchers suggest that this has big implications for government policy. Focusing innovation policy interventions on school-age children could potentially generate considerably more return on public investment than other policy levers such as tax incentives for R&D.
These issues are of interest to Nesta as they are highly relevant to two of our strategic priority themes: innovation policy and education. We think that innovation policy is not delivering the outcomes that society needs and that, to do so, it should become more inclusive - aiming to involve more people in innovation and spread the benefits of innovation more widely.
This may necessitate some radical changes to the traditional tools and approaches of innovation policy. For example, as Bell et al propose, there may be a good rationale for shifting investment from supporting business R&D through tax credits and rewards for patent registrations, to investing much further upstream, by trying to support innovation capacity and mindsets among young people.
Meanwhile, a key priority for Nesta within the field of education is understanding how we can best prepare young people for future jobs. We know that innovators and inventors, including engineers, mathematicians and designers, will be crucial in the future economy – and therefore Nesta is keen to understand how we can foster interest and skills in this area. We are particularly interested in how interventions can encourage underrepresented young people – women, ethnic minorities and children from low-income families – to become the next generation of inventors and innovators.