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Guest Post: Charting New Paths in Innovation: Reflections from Harvard’s Innovation Economics Conference

By: Jillian Grennan, Associate Professor of Finance and Principal, Diversity Pilots Initiative

This post is part of a series by the Diversity Pilots Initiative, which advances inclusive innovation through rigorous research. The first blog in the series is here, and resources from the first conference of the initiative are available here.

Recently, I had the privilege of being part of the Junior Innovation Economics Conference at Harvard Business School. This diverse gathering of scholars from fields as varied as management, technology, economics, finance, and public policy delved headlong into the intricate dynamics of invention and innovation policy. Several researchers spoke about issues relevant for better understanding diversity and inclusion in the inventive process and how to improve it. These included: documenting gender disparities in attribution for innovative output, understanding how “opt-in” organizational processes can unlock the innovative potential of engineers from underrepresented groups, and measuring how broader representation can help bring more valuable innovations to market.

Britta Glennon, a researcher exploring the interaction between diversity and corporate strategy, shed new light on the well-documented fact that women publish and patent less than men. The reasons behind these gender disparities remain largely unknown. Could it be an unsupportive work environment, family obligations that take precedence, or simply less productive time use? Britta and her team propose a different angle: that women’s work is often undervalued; hence, female inventors are being deprived of rightful recognition. 

Backed by terrific data collection, ranging from large-scale administrative data to surveys and qualitative responses, Britta made a compelling case that this alternative perspective merits our attention.

The evidence shows women are less frequently credited as authors on articles and patents, a pattern echoing historical instances like Rosalind Franklin’s unacknowledged work on the DNA structure and Jennifer Doudna’s worries about diminished recognition in the CRISPR development. It’s important to recognize that such biases might have inadvertently hidden countless female contributions over the years, possibly deterring many from pursuing a scientific career.  In fact, the crux of this research is that women, across nearly all scientific fields and career stages, are significantly under-credited compared to their male counterparts, indicating an attribution bias.  This discovery is especially important because it tells us that overcoming any female productivity deficit requires both the removal of barriers to accomplishment as well as proper attribution.

In that sense, Britta’s work on attribution related to my own research with Colleen Chien, examining engineers’ views on patenting. We discovered that while women are less likely to self-identify as inventors, both genders equally identify as problem-solvers. Could this imply traditional invention disclosure processes that require proactive inventor identification deter women? To probe this further, we implemented three pilot studies within firms, focusing on the impact of opt-out (default participation) vs. opt-in (active selection) systems on patenting disparities. Our findings suggest that, even when accounting for the inventive idea’s quality, altering the invention disclosure process to emphasize default participation can make a significant difference in participation rates for women and first-time inventors.

Another compelling presentation was delivered by Tamar Oostrom, who, alongside Jennifer Kao, is exploring innovation in healthcare markets. They reveal the glaring disparities between clinical trial enrollees and actual disease sufferers in terms of demographic characteristics. For instance, clinical trials for melanoma – a disease predominantly affecting older adults – often enroll much younger patients. By examining expansions in public insurance coverage for clinical trials, they demonstrate how reducing the financial frictions that inhibit enrollment leads to more representative enrollments in terms of age, race, and gender. More importantly, their work raises the question: Can more representative enrollments in clinical trials enhance drug effectiveness and medication adherence? If reducing the costs and hurdles associated with clinical trial enrollment can improve health outcomes, the case for expanding insurance coverage for such trials becomes stronger.

As the conference drew to a close, I was deeply inspired by my fellow scholars’ dedication and the important implications of our collective work. The key takeaways from this event for business and public policy are clear: We need to recognize and value women’s contributions to scientific innovation, ensure clinical trials are representative to avoid distorting health outcomes and consider opt-out mechanisms, where the default expectation is participation, to bridge the innovation gap for underrepresented groups. 

The challenges tied to racial and gender equality in intellectual property development are substantial, but the insights from the conference reiterate the power of our collective effort to better understand the mechanisms at work and suggest how business and society can better gain from the innovative potential of everyone.  I left feeling thankful for all the support that the other young scholars and I had received to make our own research possible.

The dialogue at the conference also affirmed that academic-practitioner collaborations work and hold great promise for the future. I encourage those who can to consider initiating their own diversity pilots – it’s a win-win situation. Researchers from the Diversity Pilots Initiative are happy to help you with this. We have expertise in econometric, observational, survey, and other empirical methods and are well-versed in topics from mentoring to inequality in innovation to government policy. And please stay tuned for further updates by emailing us and signing up for DPI research updates.