The inventive spirit in the United States is alive and well, a new study finds.
Research from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program shows the rate of patenting in the U.S. has been increasing in recent decades and stands at historically high levels. The most recent data from 2011 marked a record for the number of patents — nearly 250,000 — granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office for both foreign and domestic inventors.
Despite the increase in patents and patent applications overall, they are mostly coming from the same metropolitan areas of the U.S. The study found that 63 percent of U.S. patents are developed by people living in just 20 metro areas and that 92 percent of the patents are concentrated in just 100 different areas.
For patents sought between 2007 and 2011, San Jose, Calif.; Burlington, Vt.; Rochester, Minn.; and Boulder, Colo., were the metro areas with the highest number per capita.
Inventions, and the patents that make them up, are critical to the long-term economic performance of a city, the study found, with patenting associated with higher productivity growth, lower unemployment rates and the creation of more publicly traded companies.
The study also shows that cities that saw high patent levels within the last 30 years also yielded the largest increase in gross domestic product per worker. Specifically, workers in low-patenting metro areas could each gain $4,300 more in GDP over a decade's time, if it became a high-patenting city.
"A truly sustainable economy — meaning an economy that is in sync with the community, the people, the environment and the global marketplace — depends on sustainable methods and products that give more than they take," said José Lobo, a sustainability scientist at Arizona State University and a co-author of the study. "The quality of patents in an area influences how well an economy produces and also how well those inventing new technologies are being utilized in the work force."
The report found that research universities, a scientifically educated work force and collaboration are the key drivers in cities with high rates of innovation.
Metro areas with high patenting rates are significantly more likely to have high-ranking graduate programs in science, with the six metropolitan areas with the most patents all having at least 10 graduate-level programs. In addition, the 48 metro areas with at least one top-ranked science program produce patents at a higher rate than those areas without one.
Since patent growth tends to intensify competition among industries, the study's authors suggest targeted reforms to protect startups and prevent patent abuse. They also recommend streamlining programs and increasing federal support of innovation to improve the patenting process.
The study was co-authored by Jonathan Rothwell, a Brookings associate fellow; Mark Muro, a Brookings senior fellow; and Deborah Strumsky, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.