In 1871, Margaret Knight earned a patent for inventing a brown paper bag with a flat bottom, the same model that is used in most grocery stores across the country today. More than a century later, African American inventor Lonnie Johnson received a patent for his Super Soaker water gun, a toy that has generated more than $1 billion in sales and has been among the top 20 best selling toys in the world every year since 1991.
The commercial success these inventors enjoyed was based on a strong and open patent system. Except for individuals held in slavery, the U.S. patent system has always welcomed all inventors by awarding patents regardless of race, gender, or economic status. It is an essential engine of innovation. Economic activity from patents in the United States is estimated at more than $8 trillion and intellectual property industries directly and indirectly support 30 percent of all U.S. employment.
There is an even starker gap in the patenting rates, both applications and awards, of African Americans and Hispanics. From 1970 to 2006, African American inventors were awarded just six patents per million people, compared to more than 235 patents per million for all U.S. inventors. Today, African Americans and Hispanics apply for patents at only half the rate of whites, and African American and Hispanic college graduates similarly hold just half as many patents as white college graduates.
Finally, there is the wealth inequality gap. Individuals born to the wealthiest 1 percent of families had 10 times the number of patents of children who were born into families below the national median income. These patterns cost us economic growth and new jobs. One study found that eliminating the patenting gap for female holders of science and engineering degrees would increase GDP per capita by 2.7 percent. Another study found that including more women and African Americans in the “initial stage of the process of innovation” would increase GDP per capita up to 3.3 percent. Greater diversity would also mean more ideas and perspectives in the innovation economy, with potential solutions for significant problems that might not otherwise see the light of day.
Closing these gaps will require structural and cultural changes across all institutions, both public and private, that support American inventors. A good place to start would be for Congress to pass the bipartisan Success Act, legislation introduced in this year by Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockThe Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out Sunday shows preview: States deal with fallout of Ida; Texas abortion law takes effect The Memo: Trump pours gas on tribalism with Jan. 6 rewrite MORE (R-Va.) and Alma AdamsAlma Shealey AdamsDemocrats scramble to satisfy disparate members on spending package Pressure builds on Democratic leadership over HBCU funding On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda MORE (D-N.C.) that would direct the Small Business Administration, in consultation with the Patent and Trademark Office to identify best practices for increasing patenting rates for underrepresented individuals.
Congress should also direct the Patent and Trademark Office to collect demographic data on applicants and recipients to better understand the gaps and to study efforts to reduce them. Government agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, should use their resources to help promote diversity in entrepreneurship across industries through policy, grants, and education. Congress and the Patent and Trademark Office should expand programs that offer volunteer legal assistance or advice to lower the costs associated with patenting.
Universities and industries can also play a critical role by carrying out practices that increase the diversity of inventors and replicating the strongest programs across the country. For example, STEM mentorship and social networks for women and people of color would encourage underrepresented groups to both enter STEM fields and commercialize their inventions. Institutions should also offer paid family and medical leave and other benefits to support broad participation in innovation.
Let us grow the American economy, create millions of jobs, and foster the development of new ideas that solve significant challenges. Ensuring our country has full participation in inventing and patenting will do just that.
Holly Fechner is a partner focused on government affairs at Covington & Burling. She served as the policy director for Senator Edward Kennedy.