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What Makes an Inventor?

Economists have long examined the factors determining whether someone becomes an inventor, and they have generally found that the best step aspiring innovators can take is to be born to the right parents. But new research suggests that household income may be masking the influence of other related factors.

PARIS – Who becomes an inventor? Ideally, it would be anyone with a natural talent for innovation. But what if talent in innovation is misallocated, because some potential inventors are deprived of the conditions for success? After all, in addition to natural endowments, much depends on one’s social environment, and not every potential inventor is afforded the same level of education or parental support.

In a recently published study, we set out to answer these and related questions. Specifically, by merging three comprehensive data sets, we were able to see how the income and educational level of one’s parents and one’s own talents can determine whether one becomes an inventor. We then analyzed the interaction between these factors, and concluded that talent in innovation is indeed at risk of being misallocated under certain conditions.

A Privileged Class?

Before we turn to our own findings, consider the following figures, which show the effect of paternal income on the probability that an individual will become an inventor.