Lawmakers push to increase diversity of tech inventors

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House lawmakers pushed for ways to increase diversity among tech innovators during a hearing Wednesday.

At the hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, lawmakers and experts highlighted the importance of ensuring equal opportunities for innovation and access to the patent system, particularly for women, minorities and other underrepresented groups.

{mosads}“There is bipartisan agreement on the need to protect American intellectual property and to foster innovation,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in opening remarks. “Clearly, whatever progress is being made is happening far too slowly and much needs to be done to promote greater gender diversity among inventors.”

“When women and minorities are not in the innovation pipeline, or if they leave because they don’t feel welcome, we are losing sources for increased innovation,” subcommittee Chairman Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) added. “We are leaving talent on the table, and frankly, we are leaving talent behind.”

Last year, President Trump signed into law legislation that directs the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to report to Congress on the demographic makeup of patent applicants, including information on gender, minority status and veteran status.

But lawmakers said action was needed even as the patent office studied the issue.

The witnesses before the committee said many factors prevent women and minorities from filing and obtaining patents, including a lack of education about patent information and financial barriers.

“Fewer girls and fewer women pursue STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] careers,” Michelle K. Lee, former Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and former Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, told lawmakers about the number of female innovators.

“Even those that do face high attrition rates,” Lee continued. “There are a myriad of reasons for this, including differences in upbringing, societal expectations, fewer role models, unconscious bias and even images in the media.”

Professor Ayanna Howard, chairwoman of the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, spoke of her personal experience applying for patents and the high expenses tied to hiring lawyers and experts for a patent appeals case.

“Reports state that U.S. female-founded startups raised just 2.2 percent of venture capital investment in 2018,” Howard said. “Without sufficient capital, how then would you prosecute a successful patent application given that the price tag is so high?”

Lisa D. Cook, associate professor of economics and international relations and director of the American Economic Association Summer Training Program at Michigan State University, said the equality gap had an impact on the economy.

“Unequal access to invention and innovation can lead to suboptimal outcomes for individuals and for the economy as a whole,” said Cook. “Mine and others’ research calculates that the size of the economy could be 3 to 4 percent higher if women and underrepresented minorities were included in the innovative process from beginning to end: that is, living standards could be higher for all Americans with a more inclusive innovative economy.”

Lawmakers echoed those worries about the impact on the economy.

“If we don’t have greater diversity in our patent representation, it’s not just a loss to the individual scientist, it’s a loss to all of America,” said Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.).

Tags Donald Trump Greg Stanton Hank Johnson Jerrold Nadler

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