Finding ‘lost Einsteins’: US patent advisory committee calls for more diverse inventors

Finding ‘lost Einsteins’: US patent advisory committee calls for more diverse inventors

Steve Caltrider, chair of the Public Patent Advisory Committee at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, introduces and shares an annual report extract on expanding innovation as part of IAM's Inclusivity Insights series.

Expanding the number of people who engage in the patent system as inventors, particularly in under-represented constituencies and geographies, is critical to American competitiveness in an innovation-driven global economy. The Patent Public Advisory Committee (PPAC) of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recognised this and set as one of its three priorities to work with the USPTO to expand the base of innovation.   

The PPAC applauds IAM and its Inclusivity Insights feature to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion and is pleased to share the section of its 2022 PPAC Annual Report to the President devoted to expanding innovation to every demographic. DEI is not only the right thing to do but an essential step to American prosperity. 

Report extract

In the 1970s, the U.S. accounted for roughly 70% of global research and development (R&D). Today, the U.S. accounts for only 16%, well below China’s 25%. The National Science Board recently reported that in addition to lagging behind China in R&D output, from 2010 to 2020 the U.S. share of international patenting dropped from 15% to just 10%. In contrast, China’s share of international patents increased from 16% in 2010 to 49% in 2020. So how can we compete with China and other nations focused on innovation? We first need to acknowledge that the world is embroiled in a global innovation race.

Both countries and companies have recognized that innovation is a clear driver of national competitiveness, which is defined as economic and technological competitiveness, and national security. To maintain or enhance national competitiveness we need to focus on bringing more and different innovations and innovators into the system. But how do we know who is and isn’t participating in the innovation ecosystem? Patent data. Patent data, combined with demographic data, can help us visualize who is and isn’t participating in the ecosystem. It can also help focus efforts on how to reach and attract underrepresented inventors into the innovation ecosystem. We can enhance our economic and technological competitiveness by focusing on ensuring inclusion in innovation and invention processes for all future innovators.

The idea that focusing on inventors and patent data can help move national GDP, seems at first glance to be farfetched. Yet according to Professor Lisa Cook, a former Edison Fellow for the USPTO and current member of The Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve, “if we quadruple the number of inventors, we could increase the overall level of U.S. GDP by up to 4.4 percent. For some reference, 4.4% percent of the $23 Trillion U.S. GDP in 2021 represents about $1 trillion in potential annual growth to the U.S. economy.” The only way we can quadruple the number of inventors in the innovation ecosystem is to bring in inventors who are currently not participating or are participating at a low rate in the innovation and inventorship ecosystem. The USPTO Progress and Potential report on gender diversity in patenting helped shine a light on the underrepresentation of women in both the innovation and inventorship processes within the U.S. Additionally, national patent data shows that 80% of patents are held by corporations. Industry initiatives such as The Diversity Pledge seek to help companies obtain and analyze their binary gender patent data to help us to visualize who is participating (and more importantly who is not) in the innovation processes within the corporation. Organizations should be empowered to measure their own progress in fostering equal access to innovation along each stage of the pipeline.  Paramount in these efforts are introspective identification of objectives and benchmarks, analysis of gaps, effective data collection, and establishing methods for incorporating feedback and change. From there, companies can address the issues that have precluded women and minorities from full participation.

Expanding innovation begins with creating innovators by educating students of all ages in patent-intensive fields such as STEM disciplines and complementary skills sets, then creates environments where those graduates can use their skills to develop their ideas, and culminates with expanded access to resources that allow them to profitability commercialize their inventions. Not surprisingly, there is no one overarching issue, but many different issues that prevent full participation of women in the inventorship and innovation processes; lack of mentoring, lack of education about IP and the inventorship process, to name a few. Often, women don’t think of themselves as an inventor, rather they think of themselves as solving an immediate problem which they believe does not rise to the level of invention. Patenting happens in their off-work hours and many are too tired due to other family demands (especially during the COVID pandemic). Biased decision processes also may play a role, and many more. As companies work to learn and to address these issues, they have seen some startling early results. David Dutcher, Chief IP Counsel for Western Digital, in a recent article discussing root causes of underrepresentation says “mentoring programs increased female invention disclosures 26% and that retaining talent, employee know-how and patenting innovation is increasingly important as the semiconductor shortage continues”.

To help understand how these initiatives can be scaled nationally, Meta and Lenovo recently announced their gender inventorship numbers:

Meta’s numbers:

  • Women represented 24.8% of Meta's workforce in tech roles (see Meta's 2022 Diversity Report). For calendar year 2021, the inventorship rate for Meta’s female inventors was 17.6%.
  • Lenovo’s numbers:
  • Women represented 26.4% of Lenovo’s workforce in technical roles (see most recently published numbers in Lenovo’s 2020 D&I Report).  For calendar year 2021, the inventorship rate for Lenovo’s female inventors was 17.4%. 
  • As you can see, women inventors are participating well below their representation in the technical workforce. Meta and Lenovo are examples of this issue across all companies in the U.S., however unlike Meta and Lenovo, most companies have either not calculated their women inventor rate, or would not make that number public. Bringing more women into the innovation and inventorship ecosystem at scale can unleash a tidal wave of innovation within our economy that would be unprecedented. It is worth noting that women are only one group of underrepresented inventors (URIs). Other URIs consist of veterans, people with disabilities, traditionally under represented ethnicities, LQBTQ+, geographic areas, and more. Focusing on inclusivity will have the same effect, if not more so, than President Kennedy’s moonshot efforts had on overall innovation to the U.S. economy.

Individual inventors are not immune to the challenges of engaging the patent system. The USPTO supports 21 pro bono regions across the country as part of the USPTO’s Patent Pro Bono Program.  Adding USPTO assistance to participating regional patent pro bono programs on plans to expand their work, including by infusing more funding into their programs, allows them to help even more innovators.  By meeting people where they are, we support a wider swath of Americans including more veterans, those having a lower socio-economic status, those outside of technology hubs, and those who have traditionally not had access to the innovation ecosystem.

The USPTO also supports individual inventors through the law school clinic certification program which allows applicants to obtain pro bono legal assistance in both patent and trademark matters while allowing law students enrolled in a participating law school's clinic program to practice intellectual property law before the USPTO under the strict guidance of a law school faculty clinic supervisor. The USPTO has welcomed five new law schools this year as participants in the patent and/or trademark law school clinic programs: George Mason University, Case Western University, Wake Forest University, University of Michigan Law School, and Brigham Young University

Whereas approximately 13% of named inventors on U.S. patents are women, 41% of Patent Pro Bono Program applicants who responded to a survey in 2021 identified as women. In addition, 30% identified as African American, 14% as Hispanic, 5.6% as Asian American or Pacific Islander and 1.5% as Native American. These statistics highlight the need to find the “Lost Einsteins” and bring them more fully into our innovation ecosystem.

America’s long-standing economic prosperity and global leadership in innovation depends on first ensuring a level playing field for all Americans to create and protect their inventions. As a nation we also need every demographic to innovate, and to seek strong and reliable patents where appropriate, to secure protection for their inventions and reap the associated rewards from those efforts.

Inclusivity Insights is a monthly feature in which companies share stories, learnings, and experiences of their D&I journey related to IP and innovation with the IAM audience. Previous articles in the series:

Corning’s journey toward applying a diversity and inclusion lens to IP

Increasing diversity in innovation sprints

Diversity, equity & inclusion matter: a son’s perspective

IP and innovation inclusion takes a village: a Meta perspective

How the Pure patent programme is engineered for inclusive innovation

Diversity pledge companies now number more than 50

Closing diversity gaps in patenting: current initiatives and the HP perspective

How Seagate is working to advance diversity and inclusion in patenting

Betting on diversity in innovation 

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