U.S. inventiveness at highest point since Industrial Revolution

But Sweden leads in patent production on a per capita basis

WASHINGTON - U.S tech companies lead all other industries in patent production, and Silicon Valley has the highest patent-producing population, says a new study.

Moreover, the rate of patenting by U.S. inventors "is at its highest point since the Industrial Revolution," says a report by the Brookings Institution, titled "Patenting Prosperity."

It's hard to beat the Industrial Revolution in terms of sheer output. The leading year was 1916, when 410 patents were awarded for every one million people.

Other big inventive years are, in order, 1915, 1885, 1932, but next on the Brooking's list is 2010 and 2011. In 2011, there were about 387 patents awarded per million people.

But Brookings didn't write this report as a feel-good testament to American ingenuity. Instead, it may be seen as something as a warning of what the U.S. stands to lose.

The report measures patent activity on a per capita basis and how metro areas fare, with Silicon Valley leading the list in patent activity.

It's followed by San Francisco area, New York and Los Angeles. Most patent activity is based in metro areas, and the report looks at education, research spending, and other factors that support invention.

But when patent activity is measured on a per capita basis globally, the U.S. ranks ninth behind Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Israel, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and Japan.

"Not enough Americans are prepared to meaningfully contribute to making innovations in advanced technologies," said Jonathan Rothwell, a report author and associate fellow at Brookings.

"The average American is about half as likely to invent a patent as the average Swede," said Rothwell.

From 2000 to 2010, Sweden awarded 3.23 patents per thousand people, but in the U.S. it was 1.63.

The U.S. isn't Sweden, and if California's per capita patent production were measured alone, the data might be different. But the report also draws a clear connection between innovation and economic prosperity.

The takeaway for policy makers, said Rothwell, is "to really take seriously that innovation is the principal source of long-run economic growth."

For federal policy makers that means don't cut back on research and development, said Rothwell.

For local leaders, it might mean that instead of investing in a new stadium or convention center a better direction may be to "strengthen your research institutions and the capacity of your population to contribute to new innovations."

The Brookings report argues that, based on R&D spending, the patenting rate reflects a real increase in the number of valuable inventions and not the actions of companies simply to trying to patent more things.

Because inventions are becoming more complex, so is the cost of producing them. From 1953 to 1974, one patent was generated for every $1.8 million of R&D, but since 1975, it has been $3.5 million inflation adjusted dollars, according to the report.

There are also more people working on patent-related production. In 1910, less than one out of every 1,000 workers was an engineer or scientist, but in 2010, it was 25 out of every 1,000.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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