Government-funded research increasingly fuels innovation

A quantitative analysis shows that almost a third of patents in the U.S. rely on federal research funding

Total granted U.S. patents by U.S. inventors (blue bars), and subtotal that rely on federal research (orange bars) and patents (black line = orange / blue bars) that rely on federally supported research.  (Graphic by N. Cary, Science)The Trump administration has, for the third year in a row, proposed large cuts in science funding across a variety of agencies. Although Congress restored these cuts in the last two years, increased budgetary pressures may discourage them from doing so this year. Now, new research shows that these cuts in federal funding for science might endanger the innovation that increasingly fuels the modern economy.

By computing new linkages between government grants and tens of millions of U.S. patents and scientific papers from 1926 to 2017, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Boston University, University of Connecticut and Harvard University show for the first time that almost a third of patents in the U.S. rely on federal research. Although this may be a conservative estimate, this number has increased steadily over the past 90 years. A paper describing their work was published today in Science.

“Prior bibliometric research has established facts within particular fields, for example, 10 percent of National Institute of Health (NIH) grants generate a patent. At the other extreme, historians of technology have also described how federally funded semiconductor research has kept Moore’s law going and how important government sponsored research has been to the iPhone. What we have lacked is a historic and quantitative time series of the impact of federal support across the entire patent corpus,” said Lee Fleming, professor of industrial engineering and operations research at UC Berkeley, faculty director of the Coleman Fung Institute of Engineering Leadership and the paper’s lead author.

The research also establishes that corporations have steadily increased their reliance on federally supported research. The effect occurs across all fields; as the most extreme example, almost 60 percent of the patents in chemistry and metallurgy rely on federally supported research. Additionally, the team notes that patents that rely on federal research are more highly cited, renewed and novel terminology.

According to Fleming, this study is significant because it is the first to quantify the historical sweep of federal science patenting in the U.S. and provide data that illustrates how much the country’s patenting has relied on federal science funding since 1926.

“This study doesn’t include other, possibly more important, benefits of federal research and development support, including improved health, training of the workforce, better weapons, entrepreneurship, increased productivity and location of leading industries in the U.S.,” said Fleming.

He notes that this will be future work, in addition to quantifying the economic, social, health, technologic and scientific impact of federal science research. The researchers would also like to track the economic and social outcomes of individual grants.

Topics: Berkeley Engineering in the News, Industrial engineering, Industry, Public policy, Research