All scientific research supported by the National Institutes of Health aims to advance knowledge that will ultimately improve human health. However, some of the agency’s many institutes and centers do so in a way that tends to create economically valuable new technologies. This research is most often embodied through high-quality new intellectual property and patents.
This paper looks at the patents granted as the result of NIH-sponsored research grants and contract spending, comparing the number and quality generated by the agency’s various institutes. We find a wide variation in what can be called patent productivity at NIH, in terms of patents generated as compared with federal funds invested. Furthermore, while Congress has occasionally shifted resources in response to compelling or exciting scientific priorities, NIH’s strongest areas of patent production have experienced some of the slowest growth since 2000.
This creates an untapped opportunity for policymakers to leverage NIH’s highly valuable patent portfolio: policymakers should reinvest in the programs at NIH that have evidence of strong rates of technological innovation. Doing so will not only result in new tools and technologies that help move science and discoveries forward; it will also help meet the urgent calls to seek out programs that can help spur productivity and growth at the national level.
The vast majority of research—new scientific knowledge, theories, diagnoses, methods, and techniques—will not result in patentable innovations. Yet the highest-impact science at NIH, as pursued by 33 of the most recent NIH-funded Nobel Prize winners, overwhelmingly led to the development of new patents. Especially in the life sciences, the line between basic and applied research is not as stark as policymakers and the general public believe. Research undertaken to explore or solve a well-defined, use-inspired need or problem can also push the frontiers of fundamental knowledge.
This paper suggests that modest, sustainable, and targeted allocations to the several programs of the National Institutes of Health can provide a larger boost to the U.S. economy while furthering its core mission.
Michael J. Kalutkiewicz, M.A., has 15 years of experience in public affairs and political research, focusing predominantly on science and technology policy at the federal level.
Richard L. Ehman, M.D., is professor of radiology at the Mayo Clinic and an emeritus member of the Mayo Clinic Board of Trustees.