Foreign nationals residing in the United States are steadily making greater contributions to the country's intellectual property, stirring concern about maintaining the country's competitiveness and the debate over whether to relax U.S. immigration policy.
Research released Wednesday shows that foreign nationals were listed as inventors or co-inventors in 25.6 percent of patent applications from the U.S. in 2006, up from 7.6 percent in 1998.
The data, from the World Intellectual Property Organization, was gathered by academics from Duke, Harvard and New York University. The study defines foreign nationals as individuals with foreign citizenship living and working in the States.
Technology hubs such as California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey claimed the highest rate of foreign national patent applications.
The report also shows that foreign nationals were named in more than half of international patent applications filed from the U.S. by large corporations.
Those include Qualcomm, at 72 percent; Merck, at 65 percent; General Electric, at 64 percent; Siemens, at 63 percent; and Cisco, at 60 percent.
At the other end of the spectrum, foreign nationals were named on 6 percent of General Motors' patent applications and only 3 percent of Microsoft's.
The U.S. government is among those that benefit from foreign nationals' brainpower. Some 41 percent of its patent applications list foreign nationals as inventors or co-inventors.
It makes sense that more foreign nationals are applying for tech patents from the United States, said Kenan Jarboe, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Athena Alliance, a nonprofit think tank addressing economic issues.
There's a worldwide trend toward increased international licensing, he said. And he's not sure there's great significance in the increasing number of foreign resident filing from the U.S.
"It's really more about the diffusion of innovation around the globe," Jarboe said. "More foreigners want to protect their [international patent] in the U.S.-- just like U.S. engineers and companies want to protect their IP abroad."
The authors of the study see the research as an argument for loosening U.S. policy on immigration.
"It's fine to have foreigners creating IP, but you want them to stay here," said lead author Vivek Wadhwa, Wertheim Fellow at Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program. "We should have Americans who are going to continue to be part of the American labor force."
If not, an exodus of highly skilled foreign residents could lead to a decline in U.S. competitiveness, he said.
"You have to give these people the ability to stay here because the risk here is that the ability to create new patents leaves us," Wadhwa said.
It's not patents but the thinking behind them that counts, according to Aneesh Chopra, Secretary of Technology for the state of Virginia.
"[Of real importance] is new idea formation, whether you choose to patent it or incorporate it into a new product or service," said Chopra. "Both will lead to improved economic value."
And new ideas in any form don't necessarily constitute a threat, Chopra added.
"New idea formation is not a zero-sum game," Chopra said. "If a foreign national contributes new ideas, that does not prohibit Virginians from doing the same."
The concern is that ideas created by foreign nationals have a higher risk of commercializing outside the U.S.--that's the risk, he said.
Chopra, too, sees the underlying issue as immigration.
"In a post-9/11 world, it becomes more difficult to retain foreign nationals," he said. "And the risk we bear is high-value entrepreneurs' leaving America not by choice but because of the difficulties in our immigration process.
-- Sheila Riley