Corporate innovations relying more on government funding, study finds

Corporations are increasingly relying on federally-supported research for innovation, according to a new study.

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Nearly one-third of patents in the U.S. rely on federal research investment, according to the study, which was recently published in the journal Science. Researchers from UC Berkeley, the University of Connecticut, Boston University and Harvard University looked at links between government grants and patents from between 1926 and 2017.

The number of patents that relied on federal research “increased steadily” over that time, mainly beginning after World War II, researchers said. And while the percentage of new patents involving federal support has remained about the same since 2011, the number of patents that relied on federally-supported research nearly doubled between 2008 and 2017, from 22,647 to 45,220.

Also, patents that rely on federal research are considered more important, judging by their future citations, renewal rates and novel terminology, according to the study.

“Technological progress is seen as a process through which inventions build on one another,” Hillary Greene, a law professor at UConn and one of the study’s authors, said in an online statement. “In this study, we examine the importance of government-supported research as contributing to subsequent inventions.”

In some fields, federal funding played an even greater role in patents. For example, close to 60 percent of patents in chemistry and metallurgy rely on federally-supported research.

Federal funding for science has repeatedly faced large cuts, the researchers noted. They said those cuts “might endanger the innovation that increasingly fuels the modern economy.”

The authors of the study said this was the first of its kind to illustrate how much of patenting in the U.S. has relied on federal science funding.

“This research is an effort to detect, in a more nuanced way, the myriad fingerprints that U.S. federal research leaves, directly and indirectly, on innovation by others,” Greene said.

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Even this study was supported by a 2015 grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We hope that it provides insights for the government, corporations and citizens about where this funding goes and the downstream impact it has on innovation,” Greene said. “And let’s not forget, that does not include the social and economic impact of federally-supported research — but that’s for another day.”