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Young Americans See Inventors as Vital but Unexciting; Future of American Inventing Murky

Cambridge, MA, January 10, 2001 — Often stereotyped as brainy geeks with coke-bottle glasses, inventors seldom win any teen popularity contests. Their status, however, is rising among teens. According to the latest Lemelson-MIT Invention Index™, an annual survey of Americans' perceptions about inventing and innovating, teens do recognize the value and importance of inventors when survival is at stake. Using the hypothetical and popular example of being stranded on a desert island, the study finds that almost half of all teens (46%) surveyed would choose the company of an inventor over a famous musician, athlete or actor—the prevailing teen role models. This indicates that inventors, although not revered as celebrities, hold a vital place in the minds of many American teens.

Despite the surprising recognition given to inventors by teens in the study, the overall findings are not good news for the future of American invention. Teens still don't aspire to become inventors. They would rather assume more traditional professions—doctors, lawyers and teachers. The only careers ranking lower in the Lemelson-MIT study are politicians and journalists, revealing that much more needs to be done to foster interest in invention among American youth.

"In the knowledge based economy of the 21st century nothing is going to be more important than being able to invent the new and to re-invent the old. In this environment, being an inventor has to be seen as a normal activity and not something reserved for geniuses. Bringing about this transformation in attitudes is what the Lemelson-MIT program is all about," says Professor Lester C. Thurow, chairman of the Lemelson-MIT Awards Board.

The task of motivating teens to invent is even more daunting due to the unglamorous image and general unpopularity of inventors as role models. In this year's Invention Index™, teens rank inventors lowest (8%) among five categories of people they would most like to meet. In line with prevailing stereotypes, the most popular professionals that teens want to meet are musicians (30%), athletes (23%) and actors (22%).

Although teens express only a lukewarm interest in inventing, the Invention Index™ highlights many good reasons why teens would become inventors, and provides a road map that can help educators better understand what inspires inventiveness in adolescents. Altruism is the primary motive behind why teens would invent—to help mankind (43%) and to improve or preserve the quality of life (34%). Surprisingly, money and fame rank lowest of five choices. Apparently, teens have their societal priorities in order when it comes to recognizing the benefits of inventing.

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This year's study also compares the attitudes of American adults toward several of the same issues explored among teens. Unlike teens, adults not only recognize the importance of inventors in society, but also view inventors as role models worthy of attention. Whereas the popularity of inventors among teens suffers by comparison to musicians and athletes, it remains highest among adults, who would choose to meet an inventor before all other types of professionals cited in the study.

Other issues explored by this year's study include:

  • Inventions Americans cannot live without: The automobile and light bulb still beat the computer. Despite the proliferation of computers and society's reliance on information technology, the auto is the one invention that Americans cannot live without. Although the gap between cars and computers has narrowed over the past five years, these findings mirror those of the 1996 Invention Index™, where the automobile topped personal computers 63% vs. 8%. The light bulb is second in both surveys.
  • Teens' wish list for the new President's agenda: Curing cancer and ending hunger. Most American teens surveyed say "finding a cure for cancer" is the most important issue for the new President to tackle, followed by "eliminating hunger." Colonizing space can wait.

The Lemelson-MIT Invention Index™ has explored Americans' perceptions about inventing and innovating since 1996. Previous topics that have been covered include:

  • The importance of parents and teachers' role in fostering invention and innovation in today's youth (2000)
  • Which are the most profitable career areas for inventors (1999)
  • Which areas of research & development American taxpayers support (1998)
  • Whether certain inventions make life easier or more complex (1997)
  • Which inventions Americans could not live without (1996)

The 2001 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index Survey was conducted by Bruskin Research from a nationally representative sample of 1,010 adults and 500 teenagers. The interviews were conducted between November 17-21, 2000.

Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards including the world's largest for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Program encourages young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University of Nevada, Reno. To request a copy of the complete 2001 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index or past Invention Index surveys, please email Elliott Frieder or call 212-213-7245. For more information on the Lemelson-MIT Program's outreach activities, please contact Kristin Joyce or call 617-258-0632.

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