Students with the potential to be America’s next Einstein can be identified in elementary school, yet most won’t grow up to be innovators. So where’s the disconnect? Researchers from the Equality of Opportunity Project examined patents, tax records, and test scores to determine which kids grow up to become inventors in the United States—and which ones do not. According to the findings, limitations that begin early in life help dictate whether a given American will contribute transformational ideas to society.

“I was a little shocked that you could know so much just by third grade about who’s going to become an inventor based on science and math test scores,” says Alex Bell, a doctoral student at Harvard and lead author of the study.

Image: Nicolas Rapp

But even top-scoring students weren’t much more likely to grow up to be innovators unless they were boys from white, upper-class backgrounds. Children from the top 1% of household incomes were 10 times as likely to become inventors when they grew up as their middle- and low-income peers. White children were three times as likely as black children, and girls go on to hold just 18% of patents in the U.S.

Decreasing these disparities hinges on changing a student’s environment and correcting a lack of exposure to innovation. Proximity to inventors made children more likely to grow up to become patent holders, specifically in the same fields as their parents or other adults in their communities. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Bell says. “Having a mentor or a role model that’s in some sense similar to you is important.”

Imagine a world where, for example, girls saw women inventors as often as boys see men inventors. Recognizing the problem, then, is the first step to retaining these lost Einsteins. “This is not just the lives of the people who fall out of the pipeline that we’re talking about,” Bell says. “This is something very important to all of society.”