Despite many well-intentioned initiatives to improve diversity, innovation is still dominated by privileged white men. Exposure to innovation in childhood can shape the inventive potential of a population, and transform the prospects of the economy. Understanding how to do this well should be a priority for any government interested in a competitive and inclusive future economy.
Innovation is a rarefied field. Over the last 15 years, just:
of the people who applied for patents in the UK were women.
of UK scientists are from working-class backgrounds, even though these make up 35% of the overall population.
of British Nobel Prize winners in the last 25 years were privately educated.
To become an innovator, knowledge and qualifications are important. But opportunities are also shaped by social networks, beliefs and values. These ideas and relationships start forming from an early age. Exposure to innovation in childhood makes a critical difference shaping inventive potential.
What can be done to support innovators from an early age, and are we doing enough of it? We mapped schemes in the UK that promote invention to young people. We found that:
of the UK's school population is currently reached by schemes focused on getting children interested in inventing.
- Pupils in the South of England (including London) are twice as likely to have opportunities to take part in one of these schemes as those in the Midlands, and 1.6 times as likely as those in the North. However, Scotland does best - pupils there are 3.5 times as likely to take part as those in England. We found very few schemes operating in Northern Ireland or Wales.
- Overall, schools with better-off pupil populations are more likely to take part in schemes that promote invention. We found that, for primary schools, participation in invention schemes is relatively even for more privileged and less privileged schools. But among secondary schools, those with less privileged pupil populations are considerably less likely to take part in invention schemes.
- Schools with the most privileged pupil populations are six times as likely to reach the finals of invention competitions as schools with the most deprived pupil populations.
The UK government directs a lot of effort towards optimising tax incentives for innovative firms - these are estimated to cost £4.45bn a year. By contrast we seem to be massively under-investing in building a larger and more diverse pool of future innovators. We need to improve the reach, effectiveness and impact of interventions to provide exposure to innovation for young people. We argue that:
- All young people should have an opportunity to have at least one ‘hands-on’ experience of innovation or invention during their time at school. Our data suggests that around five times more provision is needed in order to reach all UK pupils at least once during their school careers. The sector should be supported to experiment with different programmes and approaches to see what works, with a particular focus on reaching groups who are under-represented among innovators.
- Fostering a wider and more diverse pool of innovators must not fall between the cracks of education and innovation policy. There is a clear case for innovation policymakers to invest more in fostering innovators from an early age, not only supporting business innovation.
- Better coordination across providers is needed to create a more evidence-based, coherent and impactful offer for young people. A cross-sector coalition should be set up to promote exposure to innovation among young people.
- A strategy to increase diversity in innovation needs to focus on young people’s networks, not only their skills. Innovative businesses should be encouraged and enabled to build long-term relationships with schools.
- Government should invest in research and data on diversity in innovation and pathways into innovation. We need long-term evaluations and data to track pathways of innovators over time, so that we can better understand factors that affect whether people become inventors, and explore the impact of policies across systems. We also need better monitoring data to understand diversity among innovators.
- The school curriculum should support young people’s invention skills and promote exposure to innovation. Existing opportunities to build hands-on innovation activities into the curriculum - like Extended Project Qualifications and CREST awards - should be encouraged across more schools. Teachers need support from school leaders and external organisations to offer innovative activities for all students.