Why successful STEM innovators aren't really like Silicon Valley titans

A new survey finds that 35 percent of successful innovators in STEM fields are born outside the US, their average age is 47, and they often have PhDs. But other stereotypes – such as a lack of racial and gender diversity – stubbornly persist.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
From left, web design students Kiara Zapanta, Nabila Chowdhury and Masbah Awan work on a Youth Media project at The Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria, an all-girls STEM-focused public school on September 17, 2015, in Astoria, New York. A new report released on Wednesday finds that 35 percent of STEM innovators are born outside the US, are older and tend to have advanced degrees, in contrast to many Silicon Valley leaders.

Hoping to be the next Mark Zuckerberg and create a new innovation of your own? New research suggests you should be as little like the Facebook co-founder as possible – though race and gender still play a role.

Contrary to the popular conception that innovation is often driven solely by young, technically adept entrepreneurs who have dropped out of college to found a Silicon Valley startup, the median age for successful innovators in science, technology, and engineering is 47, according to a new study.

As heated discussion of immigration and a debate about the H1-B skilled-worker visa program continues to roil the presidential campaign, it turns out that 35 percent of successful innovators in these fields, often known as STEM, were born outside the US. They are coming particularly from Europe and Asia, says the new report, released Wednesday by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

"There’s a lot of mythology out there, current buzz that innovators are in their 20s and doing startups in Silicon Valley," says Robert Atkinson, the foundation’s president, who co-authored the report, in an interview. “That’s really not what we found...To be able to do this type of science and engineering work, you’ve gotta have a lot of experience. But the real major surprise for us was the importance of immigrants. We knew immigrants were part of the STEM workforce, but the fact that they were more important [was surprising]." (Mr. Atkinson writes a regular column for the Monitor.)

This trend has been long-running, with one study published in 2001 finding that while the number of foreign-born scientists working in the US was around 18 percent in 1980, that number had increased to more than 1 in 4 among math and computer scientists and physical scientists a decade later.

But research on the age of researchers when they are doing innovative work has been more mixed. A review of more than 20 million biomedical papers listed in the index MEDLINE, which includes articles dating to 1946, found that while younger researchers are more likely to study innovative topics, more-senior researchers are likely to publish in “hot” areas in their fields when they were supervising a younger colleague.

“One reading of the results is that we quantified something that a lot of people thought was true: that young guys are innovative but they also need some mentorship,” study author Mikko Packalen, an economist at the University of Waterloo, told Nature last year.

The ITIF researchers found that education was also key in creating innovation. More than half (55 percent) of the 923 innovators in the group’s survey – who included patent holders and researchers named in an annual ranking from the industry publication R&D Magazine – had a PhD in a STEM subject, ITIF’s report finds.

But amid a growing debate about diversity in the tech world, many successful innovators in STEM fields are still white and male, the foundation's report found.

"There are some well-established stereotypes about who innovates in America, but it turns out that many of them are wrong," says Adams Nager, the report’s lead author, in a statement.

"Unfortunately," he adds, "one stereotype that turn out to be true is that women and US-born minorities are significantly underrepresented. In fact that the extent of that gap is so stark it caught us by surprise."

The researchers found that US-born minorities (including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and other ethnicities) made up only 8 percent of innovators born in the US, despite constituting 32 percent of the total US-born population. Just half a percent of innovators were African American, the report finds.

When Mr. Zuckerberg suggested last month that girls should consider being "the nerd in their school so they can be the next successful inventor," his advice reflected a larger reality.

The new report finds that women represent only 12 percent of innovators in the US, a smaller portion of the overall number of women who receive undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM fields and work as scientists and engineers.

However, the share of women born outside the US who were innovators was 5 percent higher than those born inside the country.

"Looking at this data, immigrants were much more likely to hold doctorates, compared to right around half of US-born population, also the immigrant population was younger on average and more likely to be female," says Mr. Nager, an economic policy analyst at ITIF, in an interview.

He cautioned that it was hard to interpret the discrepancy between female innovators born in the US and elsewhere, particularly from China.

"I don’t think it says all that much, one of the ideas we had [before doing the survey] was that foreign-born scientists and engineers had an even greater incentive given a more equal opportunity," he says. "We don’t have any firmer evidence, but it was an interesting finding."

The study measured whether someone was an "innovator" by looking partly at who held so-called triadic patents – those valid in the US, Europe, and Japan and often seen as economically valuable – in life sciences, materials sciences (such as engineering), IT, and at large advanced-technology firms.

Atkinson, ITIF’s president, pointed to two possible solutions for improving the number of women and minority groups represented among innovators. One, he said, was increase funding for interdisciplinary science programs at the graduate and undergraduate level. The National Science Foundation, for example, funds a grant that focuses on interdisciplinary collaboration between social and behavioral sciences.

A second – which ITIF has pushed for previously – is to increase funding for math and science-focused high schools that could serve a larger number of students across the country who might not ordinarily have access to a technical education.

"The reality is that not everybody is going to be a scientist and engineer, but you want to find the kids that have both an interest and aptitude for it,” he says, "and if you have that, [schools in the US] really ought to be giving those kids a great experience."

But in the biomedical sciences, other studies have also pointed to a declining level of interest among scientists with a PhD in pursuing a career at a research-intensive university. That's a divide that is more pronounced among female and minority scientists, who have particularly expressed interest in non-research-based careers, a 2014 study published in the open access journal PLOS One found. The researchers noted that women account for 58 percent of PhDs awarded to biological scientists from under-represented minority groups.

“These data strongly suggest that policy solutions that focus principally on increasing the supply of talent from underrepresented backgrounds (often referred to as increasing the ‘pipeline’), will not be adequate for significantly enhancing representation on science faculties, as evidenced by the disparate career interest patterns across social identity in recent Ph.D. graduates,” they wrote.

In a finding that seems to go against the popular focus on small and start-up companies, the ITIF found that approximately 60 percent of innovations created in the private sector between 2011 and 2015 came from companies with more than 500 employees, while 16 percent came from companies with fewer than 25 employees.

That could also help refocus the debate away from a popular conception of Silicon Valley that software companies are America's most successful innovative force.

"How people thought about innovation in the 50s and 60s and 70s was almost exactly the opposite, it was the corporate sector that was really driving progress,” Atkinson says. “I think the pendulum in a sense went too far, at least from my own experience at being at conferences, you see [an emphasis on small companies] as a popular narrative etched in stone, and this report suggests that that’s overly simplified."

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