The Study of Underrepresented Classes Chasing Engineering and Science Success Act (SUCCESS Act) of 2018 tasked the Director of the U.S. Patent Office with preparing a report that (among other things) identifies publicly available data on: (1) the number of patents annually applied for and obtained by women, minorities and veterans, and (2) the benefits of increasing these numbers. The USPTO was also charged with providing legislative recommendations on how to promote the participation of these groups in entrepreneurship generally and in patents specifically.
The USPTO, which transmitted its report to Congress on October 31, 2019, concluded that there is a limited amount of publicly available data regarding the participation rates of women, minorities and veterans. Additionally, the information that does exist indicates that women and minorities are underrepresented as inventors named on U.S.-granted patents, the report found. Most of the studies analyzed by the USPTO focused on women. Relatively few studies focused on minorities, and none focused on veterans.
The USPTO report estimated that the share of women inventors on granted patents increased from approximately 4 percent in 1870 to approximately 7 percent in 1940, and that the "women inventor rate" increased from approximately 4 percent in 1976 to approximately 12 percent in 2016. Despite showing a growing women inventor rate, the report also found that in 2015 women made up about 28 percent of the workforce in science and engineering, compared to which the estimated 12 percent women inventor rate pales. (For more data on gender diversity in patenting, see Fenwick's previous article exploring findings from a Yale School of Management study.)
According to the USPTO, a study of inventors on "valuable" patent applications from 2011 to 2015 indicated that many minority groups are vastly underrepresented as patent applicants. For example, of the two largest minority groups, African Americans represent 11.3 percent of U.S.-born Americans but only 0.3 percent of patent survey respondents, and individuals of Hispanic ethnicity represent 11.5 percent of U.S.-born Americans but only 1.4 percent of survey respondents.
Even accounting for the sparsity and lack of uniformity of the studied data, the startlingly low inventorship rates for women, African Americans and Hispanics should give pause, and call for greater insight into the problem of insufficient diversity in the patent arena. In its report, the USPTO recommended enhancing its authority to gather demographic information about patent applicants, such as in a voluntary biennial survey, and/or to share demographic information among federal agencies. Such efforts, if properly implemented to respect privacy, could be of value.
If nothing else, the USPTO report seems like an invitation for universities or other independent organizations to undertake larger-scale studies of recent patent participation by women, minorities and veterans across different industries, normalizing for the size of the workforce made up of these groups in those industries.
Congress is continuing to explore these issues. Most recently, the House Small Business Committee conducted a hearing on January 15, 2020, including speakers from academia, government and industry. Their testimony is available here.
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