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States That Remove Barriers to Innovation Can Promote Wider-Shared Prosperity, Well-Being

December 9, 2020 at 10:00 AM

States can chart a course toward more prosperous, equitable economies and more widely shared well-being, even as they navigate COVID-19’s short-term health and economic challenges, as we show in a new report. By better supporting the creative potential of all of their residents, state and local policymakers can tap a broader range of innovation in science, medicine, and technology — advancements that research shows are among the main drivers of economic growth and human progress.

To better promote innovation and create more resilient communities over time, states must bolster economic opportunity and dismantle structural racism, sexism, and other barriers that have severely hampered innovation from historically excluded groups. That’s our main takeaway from a deep dive into the research that includes the pathbreaking “Lost Einsteins” study from Dr. Raj Chetty’s Opportunity Insights team at Harvard. To achieve these goals state and local policymakers can look to several key policies, including boosting family incomes, reversing unwise criminal justice policies, and making investments to ensure consistently high-quality education from pre-K through college for all children.

Disparities in the sources of innovation are stark. Today, men represent 82 percent of inventors, according to the Lost Einsteins team. White children are three times likelier than Black children and eight times likelier than Latinx children to become inventors, and kids from affluent families are nine times likelier than those from low-income backgrounds. States also diverge sharply on how much innovation they generate, with the South lagging the Northeast, Midwest, and the West Coast.

Such gaps aren’t due to differences in aptitude, of course, and they aren’t new. They stem from a legacy of structural racism, sexist policies and practices, and barriers such as underinvestment in public goods and limited access to education for those who struggle economically.

As a result, we’re likely missing out on countless innovations if more people had richer opportunities. And it’s likely affecting not just the amount of innovation but its quality. Interactions between researchers of different backgrounds, and exposure to new ideas and cultures, can spark creative thinking and innovative approaches to problem-solving, likely leading to new, higher-impact solutions, compelling evidence shows. Losing out on these contributions carries significant social and economic downsides: unforeseen technologies might unlock major economic advances or help address longstanding inequities, while medical breakthroughs could help us confront Alzheimer’s or cancer — or bolster our promising defenses against COVID-19 or similar viruses that might emerge.

If children from non-rich families – regardless of their race or gender – invented at the same rates as children from families in the top 20 percent of income, states could boost their number of inventors — by, for instance, almost double in Utah to over five times in the District of Columbia (based on our methodology which we explain here.) The potential gain is larger in states in which innovation rates have historically been lower (especially the South) and more modest in states with more innovation today. (See map.)

The gains would likely be most pronounced among people of color, in particular Black and Latinx residents, since disparities by race, ethnicity, and income are intertwined.

Because public policies and practices erected many of the barriers to innovation, states can help knock them down by adopting better policies. They can start with local pilot projects to implement targeted interventions such as STEM internships and mentor programs, as the Lost Einsteins team suggests.

But they should also champion more wide-ranging strategies that can help remove underlying obstacles to people’s creative potential over time. Such broader solutions, which our report explores in more detail, include:

  1. Investing in high-quality early education and maintaining that commitment through K-12;
  2. Bolstering families’ economic security so that more children can pursue innovation;
  3. Leveraging colleges and universities to strengthen and diversify local networks of innovation;
  4. Fostering more diverse professional networks, communities, and schools; and
  5. Pursuing other policies that break down barriers for women, people of color, and others who are too often excluded, such as criminal justice reform and paid family leave.

Our findings add to the research on how increasing innovation and expanding access to a more diverse talent pool can strengthen state and local economies and make them more equitable. To rebuild their economies in the aftermath of COVID-19 and the deep recession, state policymakers should pair antiracist responses to those crises with a concerted effort to strengthen access to creative pursuits and empower more people to develop and share their full talents and ideas.


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