The 2011 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index includes a national survey sample of 1,000 young Americans, ages 16 to 25. Survey participants were asked which countries are leading the way in innovation. Japan significantly outranked the United States.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans aged 16 to 25 view themselves as creative, but only about a third think they're inventive, according a new survey on perceptions about invention and innovation.
"They are checking off all the right boxes. They like science, they like math, they like solving problems for others, they think they are creative," Josh Schuler, the executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, told me today. "But they don't, for some reason, take that leap from creative to inventive."
The finding points to a disconnect that threatens to hobble efforts to nurture a new generation of innovators who can help keep American society prosperous and strong.
"The way to be competitive for the U.S. is through innovation," Schuler added. "It is a long-term investment that we have to make."
Results from the 2011 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index show that the perception gap affects both genders, but is wider for women. According to the index, 71 percent of women indicate they are creative, the characteristic they most associate with inventors, but just 27 percent describe themselves as inventive. Among the men, 66 percent say they are creative and 39 percent say they are inventive.
Further demonstrating inventive traits, 42 percent of young women rated math or science as their favorite subject in school. That compares with a 53 percent figure for young men.
Here's the rub: Less than 10 percent of women earn college degrees in technical majors such as computer and information sciences. This highlights a need to educate women about translating their skills and academic interests into inventive careers, the Lemelson-MIT Program reported.
One way to bridge the gap is to give young Americans opportunities to invent something, Schuler noted. "In order for them to really understand it and catch the bug, they gotta do it. You have to make it relevant to them. You have to give them an opportunity to roll up their sleeves and realize in very tangible terms that science matters," he said.
Other steps include providing more government funding and space to develop inventions. These steps all cost money in a world with dwindling budgets, but Schuler insisted making the investment is the "only way" to spur the innovation required for the U.S. to claw its way out of the financial crisis.
Such investment could also make American youth think more like world leaders in innovation. In the current survey, they ranked the U.S. behind Japan as leading the way in invention.
When young people go down the path of invention and innovation, they are most interested in using their creativity to improve the lives of others with better consumer and health science products, according to the survey. Males were more interested in inventing consumer products such as mobile devices (32 vs. 28 percent), while females favored health science inventions (30 vs. 15 percent). Inventions having to do with the environment, the Web and the performing arts were farther down the wish list.
The next generation of inventors may be motivated by old-fashioned youthful idealism, or by a new sense that information technology is making the world seem smaller and more connected. In any case, Schuler said, "it seems like there are a lot more opportunities for youth to be engaged in giving back."
Other findings from the survey include:
- 39 percent of men and 36 percent of women think that inventors are people who most often work at home or in their garage (rather than in labs or start-ups), illustrating a misperception of inventors and their careers.
- Young adults show a preference for working in groups or with mentors (73 percent), the style typically associated with professionals in technical fields.
- Young women are most interested in thinking of and designing a solution (57 percent) when it comes to the inventive process; men are also interested in those steps, but they express more interest in building the solution (84 percent).
- And while many American youth seem reluctant to unleash their creative sides into the world of innovation and invention, more than half (57 percent) think that the word "creativity" best describes an inventor. That outranks other terms, such as intelligent, problem solver, works in a technical field, nerdy or quirky.
More stories on innovation in America:
- How America might invent the future
- Closing the innovation gap
- Inventors take the prize
- An insatiable hunger to create, create, create
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).