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Public Research Investments and Patenting: An Evidence Review

A look at recent scholarship to illuminate how public funding of research can influence new inventions.

Report cover.

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The federal government funds R&D to address an array of public interest goals, but the basic function of R&D investment is to create knowledge that, with foresight and luck, might be applied later. Assessing this knowledge output and application is not easy, but one common if imperfect proxy is by tracking and analyzing patents and patent connections.

In recent years, a large body of scholarship has emerged that relies on patent analysis to gauge the interplay between science and patenting, and assess the role government funding plays in patent production, if any. This new report, Public Research Investments and Patenting:
An Evidence Review
, surveys this literature to illuminate these influences and help policymakers, research managers, and others understand the ways public funding can interact with the innovation system.

First: Why patents?

The use of patents as a metric for evaluating innovation has come under criticism in recent years, and not without cause. However, studies have provided some validation that patent metrics can in fact say something useful about innovation and knowledge flows. For instance, there appears to be a correlation between patent citation metrics and performance improvements across several technology areas, and citation metrics can also point to novelty and to economic value. 

Patents are not a perfect metric and should by no means serve as the sole indicator for evaluating public research investments, but patent-based analysis can nevertheless say something useful.

So what can we say?

As explained in the report, there seem to be three major takeaways. First, public research is increasingly connected with U.S. patent production, as universities and businesses seem to draw more and more upon output from publicly funded research to yield new patentable inventions. This includes research funded by most major research agencies.

Second, patents that rely on publicly funded research seem to be of a slightly different quality, offering greater novelty and technological impact that can seed new technology fields, including those neglected by industrial research funders.

Lastly, public research funding seems to be able to increase the rate of patenting, through a variety of mechanisms and across high-tech sectors. This effect may be particularly important for small firms, for whom external financing of research and commercialization may be particularly critical.

For more, download the full report.


Cover Image Source: Department of Energy