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ACS Comment: Increasing diversity in inventorship and innovation

by Carlyn Burton, chair, ACS Committee on Patents and Related Matters
April 16, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 13


Carlyn Burton.
Credit: Courtesy of Carlyn Burton
Carlyn Burton

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields lag behind the total US workforce in terms of gender, racial, and ethnic diversity, something the American Chemical Society aims to address through goal 5 of its strategic plan. Many people have assumed that the lack of diversity among inventors was related to this underrepresentation. Until recent years, such assumptions could not be validated because patent offices did not collect demographic information from inventors.

However, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) investigated the percentage of women inventors among all inventors using a name-based attribution algorithm and found that the percentage of women inventors is substantially lower than women’s education and employment as scientists and engineers. The USPTO reports that within chemistry-related patents, women made up approximately 18% of inventors from 2007 to 2016. While an increase in the pipeline of women scientists and engineers can enable excellence, innovation, and transformative action among scientists and engineers, these efforts alone may not be enough to reach parity in inventorship or the full potential of innovation.

According to a report released by the Equality of Opportunity Project, if no action is taken, it will take over 100 years before the US reaches gender parity in inventorship. Understanding the need for practical solutions to address this issue, the Association of University Technology Managers and the Intellectual Property Owners Association have put together tool kits that give academic institutions and corporations practical strategies to overcome some of the institutional and societal barriers to inventorship and to foster increasing levels of engagement in underrepresented populations in the patent process.

ACS’s Committee on Patents and Related Matters (CPRM) generally focuses on four main areas: educating ACS members about intellectual property (IP) issues important to the chemical enterprise, monitoring legislative and regulatory developments influencing IP, disseminating information about the role of sponsored research and technology transfer, and nominating chemists and chemical engineers for national awards. Each of these areas of focus is meaningful to address the inventorship gap.

If no action is taken, it will take over 100 years before the US reaches gender parity in inventorship.

We seek to be a resource about IP issues, and our committee members are active in educating the society about intellectual property generally and patents specifically. Our committee members regularly speak about IP at symposia, and the committee also publishes written resources like “What Every Chemist Should Know about Patents.”

We monitor legislative and regulatory developments, including the Study of Underrepresented Classes Chasing Engineering and Science Success Act of 2018 (SUCCESS Act) and the pending Inventor Diversity for Economic Advancement Act of 2021 (IDEA Act).

Our committee seeks to educate about the role of technology transfer within academic institutions or federal labs so that we can demystify the process. This is particularly important for individuals who have never been inventors.

Our last area of focus concerns national awards. CPRM recommends nominations of chemists for the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame, highlighting and acknowledging the IP contributions of chemists and others working in chemistry. We strive to nominate chemists from underrepresented communities as part of our process. For many individuals, seeing people of similar backgrounds among the leading innovators in our country may inspire them to achieve their own potential.

However, CPRM will also require the engagement of ACS members and their employers to create a meaningful impact in the chemical sciences. There are many things that we can do as individuals:

For those planning outreach events, talk about patents and recognize inventors.

Talk about patents with the youth whose projects you are judging at science fairs.

Help local scouts earn innovation­-related badges or patches.

Attend symposia on patents, including those held by the ACS Division of Chemistry and the Law and the Division of Small Chemical Businesses, so that you can better understand the patent process for yourself and also encourage your colleagues to protect their ideas.

If you know of innovators from underrepresented communities who should be considered for IP-related national awards, please share their names with CPRM.

For patent holders, consider talking about the patent process at your institution, particularly with those from underrepresented groups, and be their patent mentor.

Ask your institution or organization what steps they are taking to address this issue—and be prepared to educate them that it is an issue.

As CPRM continues to consider how we and ACS can meaningfully reduce the number of years before parity in inventorship is reached, we also encourage ACS members to give more thought on how best to engage underrepresented groups as innovators now and in the future.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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