Urgent: This innovation myth needs to end

By Meris Stansbury
March 7th, 2016


First-ever report reveals the most prolific innovators in the U.S. are not young entrepreneurial college dropouts; rather, highly educated immigrants with STEM degrees.

It’s the myth that just won’t go away and is, in part, responsible for the current belief amongst Millennials and Gen Z’ers that higher education isn’t relevant: today’s most successful and brilliant innovators are young entrepreneurs that drop out of college (e.g. Mark Zuckerberg, Jan Koum, Sean Parker).

And though these drop-out entrepreneurs may have a pop culture edge thanks to the popularity of WhatsApp and Facebook amongst younger users, a new report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) reveals that the innovators that are not only the most prolific, but spur the most tech progress for the U.S., are, in fact, immigrants with Masters degrees or higher in STEM fields.

The report, written by Adams Nager, economic policy analyst at ITIF; David Hart, professor and director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University; Stephen Ezell, vice president of global innovation policy at ITIF; and Robert Atkinson, founder and president of ITIF; defines an innovator as someone that “drives technological progress by creating innovative new products and services that raise incomes and improve quality of life for everyone.”

These innovators include people who have won national awards for their inventions; filed for international, triadic patents for their innovative ideas in three technology areas (information technology, life sciences, and materials sciences); and filed triadic patents for large advanced-technology companies.

In total, over 6,000 innovators were contacted for the report, and over 900 provided viable responses about who they are in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age, citizenship and education.

Not Who We May Think

According to the data collected in what ITIF calls the first-of-its-kind report, the demographics of U.S. innovation are not only different from the demographics of the U.S. as a whole, “but also from the demographics of college-educated Americans—even those with Ph.Ds. in science or engineering.”

The report reveals that immigrants comprise a large component of U.S. innovation:

  • More than one-third (35.5 percent) of U.S. innovators were born outside the U.S., even though this population makes up just 13.5 percent of all U.S. residents.
  • Another 10 percent of innovators were born in the U.S. but have at least one parent born abroad.
  • More than 17 percent of innovators are not U.S. citizens, yet they are making contributions on behalf of the U.S.
  • Immigrants born in Europe or Asia are more than five times as likely as the average native-born U.S. citizen to have created an innovation in America.
  • Immigrant innovators also are better educated on average than native-born innovators, with over two-thirds (67 percent) holding doctorates in STEM subjects.

(Next page: Highly educated innovators; the stereotypes that are true)

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