A bipartisan, bicameral group of members of Congress introduced the Inventor Diversity for Economic Advancement (IDEA) Act to ensure that policy makers and researchers have the tools they need to study diversity among inventors holding U.S. patents. Representative Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Representative Steve Stivers (R-OH), Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) introduced the IDEA Act on the heels of a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) report released earlier this year finding that as of 2016 only 20 percent of U.S. patents list a woman as an inventor, and that only 12 percent of inventors seeking a patent were women. A 2016 study by the Institute for Women’s policy research reached similar conclusions, finding that only 18 percent of U.S. patents list a woman inventor.

In addition to the USPTO and IWPR studies on gender disparities in patenting, other scholars have studied race and income gaps in patent rates. For example, Professor Lisa Cook at Michigan State University has found that African Americans and Hispanic Americans hold roughly half the number of patents that white Americans do, and that African Americans and Hispanic Americans also apply for patents at significantly lower levels than white men. Separately, Alex Bell and his colleagues at Harvard, found that a person born into a family in the top one percent of income is ten times more likely to receive a patent than someone born into a family in the lower fifty percent of income. Even at the very top income levels, children born into the top one percent are 22 percent more likely to patent an invention in their lifetime than those born into the top five percent.

Because the USPTO does not collect data on the gender, race, income, and other characteristics of inventors, all research today relies on software algorithms or other survey data to estimate the demographics of inventors. The IDEA Act would change this. The bill would require the USPTO, for the first time, to collect demographic data—gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, age, military or veterans status, disability, education level, and income level—from patent applicants on a voluntary basis. The USPTO would be required to keep this information separate from the patent application itself, and to make the data available publicly. According to the sponsors, the bill will help close the patent gaps by helping the USPTO and the public to monitor diversity among inventors on an ongoing basis.

The IDEA Act is the latest in a series of congressional action to promote diversity in the patent system. The Study of Underrepresented Classes Chasing Engineering and Science Success (SUCCESS) Act (Pub. L. No. 115-273) became law in October 2018. That legislation requires the USPTO to work with the Small Business Administration to study the gender, race, and income gaps in patenting and report to Congress on its findings by October 31st of this year. In furtherance of that report, the USPTO has held a series of hearings to take public testimony on this topic.

In addition, both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held hearings this past spring on diversity in patenting, taking testimony from inventors, academics, and industry representatives on the extent of the disparities and best practices for closing the gaps. The IDEA Act follows from these hearings, where witnesses testified that the difficulty of studying the diversity gaps in patent gaps makes it difficult to track progress.