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Innovators of the Future

July 27, 2012


I don’t believe that any particular group of people or type of person has a stranglehold on innovation. Innovators can come from all races, genders, religions, countries, economic circumstances, and cultures. Even so, that doesn’t stop people from trying to detect hot spots of innovation to determine why those hot spots exist. One thing that most analysts agree upon is that education helps create such spots. Specifically, more young people need to be educated in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields. In the search for future innovators, one group that has received a lot of attention is immigrants.


Although the United States is historically a nation of immigrants, there has been a lot xenophobia exhibited over the past couple of decades. Nevertheless, people like Edward Schumacher-Matos argue that “To ‘out-innovate,’ we must let more immigrants in.” [Washington Post, 28 January 2011] Writing shortly after President Obama delivered his 2011 State of the Union address, Schumacher-Matos wrote:

“The only way the nation can meet Obama’s call to ‘win the future’ is to bring in more high-skilled immigrants. … We do indeed ‘need to out-innovate, out-educate and outbuild the rest of the world,’ as the president said, but a big part of the American way to do just that has been to use the skills of immigrants. The United States issues far more patents – a primary measure of innovation – than any other country, but immigrants were responsible for about a quarter of them in recent years, according to studies by researchers at Harvard Business School and elsewhere. At Intel, the world’s largest maker of semiconductors, 40 percent of the patents are for work done by Chinese or Indian immigrants, the Council on Foreign Relations reported in 2009. Immigrants create patents at twice the rate of native-born Americans because they disproportionately hold degrees in science and engineering, Marjolaine Gauthier-Loiselle and Jennifer Hunt concluded in a study published last year by the Center for Economic Research in London.”

Schumacher-Matos noted that there is nothing new about the notion that immigrants contribute significantly to the fact that America has been the world’s leading innovation nation. He wrote:

“Immigrants such as the Italian Enrico Fermi, the Hungarian Edward Teller, the Germans Hans Bethe and Albert Einstein, and the Pole Hyman Rickover were central in building our preeminence in nuclear power, physics and arms, for example. David Ho from Taiwan pioneered protease inhibitors against AIDS. Sergey Brin from Russia founded Google. The list goes on.”

Immigrants, like those identified by Schumacher-Matos, have historically been welcomed to U.S. shores. In fact, the rest of the world used to lament the fact that America was draining it of its best brains. In recent years, debates about undocumented aliens have thrown a pall over all immigrants (legal or otherwise). Schumacher-Matos reports that “researchers David Kerr of Harvard and David Lincoln of the University of Michigan found [in 2010] that the large presence of immigrants in high-tech fields stimulated business and actually created more jobs than they took away for native-born Americans.” Sometimes that kind of data is lost in the debate. New studies are confirming most of the arguments put forth by Schumacher-Matos. For example, a study conducted by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonprofit group co-founded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, concluded “that immigrants played a role in more than three out of four patents at the nation’s top research universities.” [“Immigrants Are Crucial to Innovation, Study Says,” by Andrew Martin, New York Times, 25 June 2012] Martin continues:

“The report points out that while many of the world’s top foreign-born innovators are trained at United States universities, after graduation they face ‘daunting or insurmountable immigration hurdles that force them to leave and bring their talents elsewhere.’ The Partnership for a New American Economy released a paper in May saying that other nations were aggressively courting highly skilled citizens who had settled in the United States, urging them to return to their home countries. The partnership supports legislation that would make it easier for foreign-born STEM graduates and entrepreneurs to stay in the United States.”

Martin reports that some people “worry that the partnership’s ideas for immigration reform would undermine similarly skilled American workers while failing to address broader problems with immigration policy.” America needs more skilled workers not fewer. I’ve pointed out in past posts that millions of jobs are currently going unfilled because enough skilled workers can’t be found. I’m guessing that Bloomberg’s Partnership also favors more Americans gaining the skills that make immigrants such valuable employees. I don’t see this as an “either/or” situation. America wins when more of its citizens are educated in STEM fields as well as when it attracts foreigners educated in those disciplines. Martin continues:

“The most recent study seeks to quantify the potential costs of immigration policies by reviewing 1,469 patents from the 10 universities and university systems that had obtained the most in 2011. The schools include the University of California system, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Patents, the study maintains, are a gauge for a nation’s level of innovation and an important way for the United States to maintain an edge in STEM fields. In one illustration of the issue, the study notes that nine out of 10 patents at the University of Illinois system in 2011 had at least one foreign-born inventor. Of those, 64 percent had a foreign inventor who was not yet a professor but rather a student, researcher or postdoctoral fellow, a group more likely to face immigration problems. Some of the patents that were reviewed for the report have become business ventures. Wenyuan Shi, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, earned a patent for an ingredient in a lollipop he developed that works as a dental treatment for children. A native of China, Mr. Shi has created a company to commercialize his inventions.”

In years past, the U.S. would have celebrated the fact that world’s best and brightest were flocking to its shores. Today, “immigration laws can make it difficult for foreign-born students to remain in the United States after graduation.” Not everyone, however, is focusing on immigrants as the primary source of innovation in the future. Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, and Tina Tchen, executive director of the council and chief of staff to the first lady, believe its time unleash the innovative power of another group — women. [“Helping women reach their economic potential,” Washington Post, 25 September 2011] They want to do this by encouraging women to enter STEM fields. They write:

“Women working in science, technology, engineering and math careers earn 33 percent more than those in other occupations, and these ‘STEM’ skills will become even more important in high-growth, high-tech fields such as health-care technology and advanced manufacturing.”

Jarrett and Tchen note that women who want families often face the dilemma of choosing between raising children or pursuing a career. They believe that programs, like one announced by the National Science Foundation, could help women do both. They explain:

“To support female innovators and help women contribute to the economy, the NSF is taking steps to allow researchers to balance their responsibilities in the lab with their responsibilities at home. For example, if a researcher needs to delay the start of a funded project for a family-related reason, such as taking care of a young child or an aging parent, the NSF will work with her to make that possible without causing her to lose her grant. If she needs to interrupt research to have a baby, there will be options to add the lost time onto the end of her funding period without penalty. In many cases, NSF will even pay for technicians who can keep labs and research projects running during a period of parental leave. As an agency devoted to evidence-based decision making, NSF will also support research into the effectiveness of flexible workplace policies. This will ensure that the new programs are working and will help identify best practices to share with the public and private sectors. For many women who dream of becoming scientists and researchers, these kinds of simple, common-sense changes will make a world of difference. And our entire economy can benefit, because if more women have the chance to pursue STEM careers, it will lead to more innovation, entrepreneurship and growth.”

I certainly agree that we need to do more to unleash the innovative power of women. Dominic Basulto, a “digital thinker” at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York, believes that the future may yet belong to another group that includes both genders — the Baby Boomers. [“Why Baby Boomers are the innovators of the future,” Washington Post, 26 June 2012] He explains:

“Baby Boomers are starting companies at a faster pace than ever before, according to a March report by the Kauffman Foundation and younger workers lack the disposable income and job prospects they once had. This means we may be witnessing a passing of the innovation baton to members of the older generation. As older Americans begin to define the debate around innovation, then the generation gap will soon make its presence felt in innovation hubs like Silicon Valley. … Aging Baby Boomers … have the disposable income, free time and optimism to try new things that once were exclusively the preserve of their younger colleagues.”

Basulto concludes that entrepreneurial Baby Boomers are leading “a broad social transformation that is shifting power from the younger generation to their parents.” A final group that has been identified as a source of innovation in the future is … the group! Often referred to as crowd-sourcing, group innovation is just coming into its own. Jeff Howe writes:

“Technological advances in everything from product design software to digital video cameras are breaking down the cost barriers that once separated amateurs from professionals. Hobbyists, part-timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.” [“The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” Wired, June 2006]

Kristen Cluth reports that “virtual collaborative tools … are driving the growth of the new industrial revolution.” [“Crowdsourcing Science at TEDGlobal,” PC Magazine, 26 June 2012] She states that “Radical Openness” is breaking down “traditional boundaries” innovation through the use of “social networking, crowdsourcing, open sourcing, and collaboration.”


There’s good news in all of this. Whether you believe that the innovators of the future are going to be immigrants, women, Baby Boomers, or the crowd, people are predicting that innovation is going to continue and that the world should change for the better as a result.

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