Progress against big problems – the focus of our work at Our World in Data – is possible because of new ideas: humanity started to win the war against infectious diseases when scientists started to understand that it is microscopic pathogens that infect and kill us. The germ theory of disease was just the first step; based on this insight others followed with more ideas – a myriad of new technologies, but also public health interventions. It was only once we understood the origins of infectious diseases that we realized the importance of now seemingly obvious ideas, such as supplying households with clean water.1
The same is true for progress against other problems: the ideas that sparked technological innovation made societies richer, and breakthroughs in the development of agricultural technology made it possible that while the world population increased rapidly hunger decreased at the same time.
The list of innovations we need is long: clean and cheap energy, better crops, interventions to help against the diseases that shorten and impair our lives. This, and much more besides, is needed to make progress against the big problems we face. But while the demand for innovation is large, its supply is limited.
Those who have brilliant ideas are often able to make a good living from them for themselves. But beyond their private returns big insights and discoveries benefit society as a whole. The very best ideas – think about penicillin, synthetic fertilizers, or vaccines – benefit every person on the planet.
For both reasons – personal opportunity and social benefit – we should make sure that all talented people have the chance to develop new ideas. But this is not the case.
’Who becomes an inventor in America?’ – is the title of a study by Alex Bell, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova, and John Van Reenen published in 2019.2
It is based on an impressively comprehensive dataset. The authors studied the lives of 1.2 million inventors in the US from birth to adulthood.3
The authors wanted to answer the question: what is it that matters for whether a child grows up to become an inventor? They studied two aspects: personal ability at a young age and the circumstances in which a child grows up.
To study ability they matched a subset of their data on inventors with records of their math scores back when they were third graders.4 To study the role that circumstances play the research team matched the inventor dataset with tax record data that allowed them to study the socio-economic situation they grew up in.
Skills matter a lot. Those who were good at maths at a young age were much more likely to become inventors later in life.
The findings on how much circumstances matter are just as clear. Whether children grew up to become inventors later in life depends on the environment they grew up in.
The circumstances that matter are to a large extent economic: Those who grew up in richer families were much more likely to become inventors later in life. These differences are big. The study illustrates this by comparing students from poor and high-income families. The income threshold is high: the authors chose a cutoff that separates the bottom 80% of American families from the rest. Of the highest scoring 5% of students, those from high-income families were more than twice as likely to become inventors as those at lower incomes.
The study further shows that very specific circumstances play an additional big role: Thanks to the very large dataset that includes information from very different regions within the country, the researchers show that it is exposure to innovators during childhood that matters. Children who grew up in an area, or better yet a family, with many inventors were more likely to follow their path and become innovators themselves. Children look for role models, and when they are exposed to science and innovation some end up following in their idol’s footsteps.
Skills and circumstances matter. What is tragic is when children have the ability, but were denied the circumstances that would have helped them to fulfill their potential. The authors coined the term ‘Lost Einsteins’ for these children.
The researchers also studied why is it that far fewer girls than boys grew up to become inventors. Differences in skills at a young age are not the explanation: test scores of boys and girls were very similar according to the study.5 Instead the researchers find that talented girls were much less likely to become innovators than equally talented boys and show that it is the exposure to role models that can explain these gender differences. Those girls who are exposed to women who are inventors are more likely to grow up to be inventors themselves. The lack of role models in the older generation brings about a lack of role models in the younger generation. The gender gap in innovators is still large. Only 18% of US inventors born in 1980 are women. To extend the authors’ metaphor: even more common than ‘Lost Einsteins’ are ‘Lost Marie Curies’.
The disadvantage of some children comes at a cost to all of us. Overall, the researchers estimate that if high-ability children from disadvantaged groups would benefit from the same circumstances as the best-off groups, there would be four times as many inventors in the US as there are today.
And we are not just losing inventors: we all losing out on teachers, artists, writers, political leaders, scientists, painters, thinkers, musicians and the many other ways in which talented young people can enrich the world of all of us when they find themselves in a supporting environment.
The study on inventors does not only shed light on the loss of inventors in our world today, but also help to understand the history of innovation. The world surely saw many exceptionally talented people in our long history, but for millennia they grew up in poverty, hunger, poor health, and with little access to education. Very few bright children in our long history lived in circumstances that made it possible for them to fulfill their potential. Lost Marie Curies and Einsteins are not rare; there were many thousands of them throughout humanity’s history.
At various times some were lucky enough to enjoy better living conditions and develop ideas that altered their society’s circumstances and culture. Some of history’s many exceptional people were fortunate to be born in the past civilizations of ancient Greece, China, Rome, or the Indus-valley and were able to develop artistic, scientific, or technological innovations that had a lasting legacy. But for the vast majority, the daily struggle in the extremely poor pre-growth economies was hard. Personal development was not easy in times when most people were required to work in agriculture to produce enough food, many were sick and undernourished, many lived as slaves, and even very basic educational skills – like reading and writing – were a privilege of the very rich.
But two centuries ago the trickle of innovators became a stream when, for the first time in history, living conditions started to improve for large parts of the population in entire world regions. The Industrial Revolution first changed Northwestern Europe where health improved, and incomes increased. North America and Oceania followed soon after. At the start of the 20th century life expectancy in these regions had increased to 45 to 55 years, while the rest of the world remained with a life expectancy between 23 and 30. Only in the better-off regions did the average adult have some formal education.
It was this improvement in living conditions for the masses that was key to enable further economic growth and improvements in living conditions. It started a virtuous circle between ideas leading to better living conditions and better living conditions enabling better ideas. The scientific revolution powered the industrial revolution and industrialization in turn raised living conditions and enabled more people to contribute to science and innovation.
The global inequality in living conditions that emerged is reflected in the big innovations of the time. Penicillin, synthetic fertilizers, and vaccines were largely developed in those places where children grew up in the best conditions. The huge majority of Nobel Prize winners in the first half of the 20th century came from the richest regions on the planet – Europe and North America.6
Just as it is very hard for a child from a disadvantaged background in the US to become an inventor, the same was true for billions of children who grew up in poor living conditions throughout history. Children with great potential ended up living a life in poverty, working as farmers and struggling to feed their families and themselves.
Being a great artist, scientist or inventor is of course not the only way to live a fulfilled life and contribute to society, but it is tragic when children who had the ability were prevented from reaching their potential. Tragic for themselves, but also for all of us who missed out on their work that could have enriched our lives, given us a better understanding of our world, and gotten us closer to solutions of problems that we all share.
Life is about much more than solutions to problems and we are not only missing out on innovations, but also art, writing, research, music – the entire breath of human creativity that flourishes when talent and dedication come together with enabling circumstances. Our losses are unimaginable.
Maybe it is difficult to imagine what the life of a talented child could have looked like if he or she had not been born in a poor English village in the Middle Ages. But the same is true for different places in our world today. In this context it might be easier to imagine how living conditions matter.
What would have been the chances for Steve Jobs if he was born in the Central African Republic? And what would have been possible for Taylor Swift if she grew up in Papua New Guinea instead of Pennsylvania and Nashville? And the other way around: What could the world’s poorest children grow up to be if they had the circumstances of Steve Jobs or Taylor Swift?
Surely we all are missing out on many of the most talented people in the world. The US study showed that not belonging to the richest 20% of American families gives children a much worse chance at being an innovator. Income inequality in the world is so large that Americans who are poorer than 90% of other Americans are richer than more than 70% of the world population.7
It is not just in terms of economic circumstances that the majority of children find themselves worse off than children in America. Children at school-entry age can expect 16.5 years of education in the US, but only 5 years on average in poor countries. And estimates from the latest global data show that 60 million children of primary-school age do not attend school at all, and those who go to school in poor countries also learn much less. For a child growing up in a poor place it is extremely hard to obtain the level of education an average person gets in the best-off places.
And the cited research suggests that it is not just income and access to education that matter. If the role model effect that the US study emphasized exists everywhere, then poor living conditions are compounded by the fact that most children in most places are exposed to very few role models in research and innovation.
The map below shows the global distribution of research and development, here given as the share of people employed in research and development. The hotspots are six countries in which more than 6000 per million inhabitants work in research and development: South Korea, Singapore, Israel and three Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Finland, and Denmark). 6000 per million means that 1 out of 167 people works in R&D. Even in the best-off countries, very few focus on innovation.
As the historical discussion above would suggest there is a strong correlation between economic development and research and development. In some poor countries less than 30 per million are engaged in R&D.
What is true in the US, and what has been true throughout history, is true for the world today: science, research, and development can flourish where large parts of the population are relatively well off.
If all countries in the world had the same concentration of researchers as rich countries, there would be around three-times as many researchers in the world; if the entire world had the concentration of the top six countries there would be more than five-times higher.8
The circumstances for those researchers differ widely too. Spending on R&D differs between 4.25% of GDP in Israel and South Korea to below 0.1% in many poor countries.
Finding solutions to big problems has always been hard. And there is evidence that suggests that it is getting harder: Michael Nielsen and Patrick Collison (here) and also Scott Alexander recently argued that while the world is certainly dedicating much larger resources – both people and funding – to science, research and development, the rate of progress in physics, medicine, and other important fields kept at best constant over the last century.9
The world’s most limited resource is not oil, iron, or coal, but the potential of the human mind.
We lack treatments for a large range of diseases; we need to decarbonize the global economy; we should transform our food system to one that feeds the world while reducing its impact on the environment that we rely on; if anyone has the ideas to solve these problems, everyone can benefit from them at the same time. Someone living in Europe or America benefits if someone in India or Africa becomes better off and invents that medical drug, the technology to produce cleaner energy, or those new crops.
The demand for new ideas from which we would all benefit is enormous, but because opportunities are limited, the supply of new ideas is limited.
Talent and ability are everywhere, but opportunity is not.
There are 2 billion children under the age of 15. Focussing our efforts on improving the conditions in which the young generation grows up is a big challenge, but also a fantastic opportunity. All who are in power today will be gone soon and the generation who is growing up now will take the lead. All will go through the education system we offer them today; whether they can realize their potential depends on the circumstances in health, shelter, food, prosperity, freedom, and education that we can provide for them.
Improving living conditions is our moral duty, but beyond that it is also the way to increase the supply of much needed creativity and innovation. This means that there is a selfish reason for all of us to do what we can to support global development. Better education and improving circumstances in which children grow up can allow them to reach their potential. Historically we have seen how improving circumstances can lead to innovation which feeds back to improving living conditions. These positive feedback loops have changed many places around the world and are needed to solve the big problems that we all face. This is why it is so very important to continue the positive developments of the last decades with more children surviving, more children growing up free of the worst poverty, and more children being better educated than ever before. If I am optimistic about the future of the world and progress against the world’s problems it is because of this.
As I argued in the article, I believe that the main reason why we should be interested in improving global living conditions is a moral one: we need to do what is possible to allow everyone to live a life free of poverty, free of hunger, and free of premature death.
– Givewell.org studies where your donation can make the biggest difference against the world’s large problems.
– 80000hours.org helps you choose a career in which you can have the biggest positive impact to make progress against the world’s largest problems.
In addition to the moral argument, there is also a selfish argument: because we all benefit from everyone else’s ideas, we should all have an interest in enabling everyone to live a good life. Last year I worked with the great Kurz Gesagt team on this video that is based on the ideas of this article.