SAN FRANCISCO Patent application filings by foreign nationals living in the U.S. have increased significantly in the past nine years, according to Duke University research results.
In 2006, U.S. resident foreign nationals were listed as inventors or co-inventors on 24.2 percent of filings, up from 7.3 percent in 1998.
For the period from 1998 to 2006, foreign nationals accounted for 14.76 percent of the approximately 50,500 patent application filings done, the research found. The findings are part of a study released earlier this month on immigrants' contributions to U.S. and technology startups.
U.S. residents from China and Taiwan taken together made up the largest group of patent filers with 26.8 percent of filings, followed by Indians with 21 percent.
That contrasts with the leading position Indian immigrants hold as founders of tech and engineering businesses, according to other study findings. Indians founded or co-founded 26 percent of startups from 1995 to 2005. Chinese founded 6.9 percent and Taiwanese 5.8 percent.
"The Indians start many more companies than the Chinese do, but the Chinese file many more patents than the Indians do," said Vivek Wadhwa, executive in residence at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering and research leader for the Duke study.
Canadians and British were in third and fourth place, respectively, in patent applications, followed by Germany and France.
Filers most likely are Ph.D. researchers working in universities on a variety of temporary visas, Wadhwa said. Some could be employees of U.S. multinationals on temporary working visas, while others could be green card holders who may be waiting for citizenship, he said.
Duke researchers used the World Intellectual Property Organization Patent Cooperation Treaty database for international patents filed in the U.S. to come up with their results. Immigrants who became U.S. citizens prior to filing a patent application weren't included in the findings.
More patent applications were filed in theoretical, computational and practical categories such as electricity, human necessities and chemistry. Fewer were filed in mechanical, structural, or traditional engineering.
Researchers from Pratt's master's in engineering management program conducted the study as part of a larger look at the impact of globalization on the engineering profession and U.S. competitiveness.
Along with the data on immigrant startup founders, the patent statistics bolster the case for increasing the green card quota and making it easier for highly skilled foreigners to gain citizenship, Wadhwa said. Those on H-1B temporary visas for skilled workers often return to their native countries when offered a job there, he said.
"We've got all these brilliant people contributing to U.S. competitiveness," Wadhwa said. "We train them and we keep them in a holding pattern while the economies of India and China are improving a lot."
The wrong problem is being addressed in the visa debate, according to Wadhwa. "Rather than increasing the number of green cards that we issue, we're talking about increasing the number of H-1Bs," he said. "All that's going to do is make this problem worse."