OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard: Innovation and Growth in Knowledge Economies

When the Reverend William Whewell invented the term “scientist” in 1834, a natural philosopher could probably have read everything published in his (or very rarely her) field and would have known most if not all of the other researchers. There were only 100 or so scientific journals and even by the turn of the century there were only 10 physics PhDs awarded a year in the US (“physicist” was another of Whewell’s neologisms).

Today, Pubmed alone has 21 million articles, adding an average of one every minute, and as Duncan Hull points out, it concentrates on biomedical literature so a huge number of physics, mathematics, chemistry, engineering and computer science papers are indexed elsewhere, perhaps around 50 million in all.

The latest OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard uses an index of how this mass of information is cited to explore trends in where research is being done and what impact it has.

Intuition still plays a role in scientific breakthroughs, and the individual who can see a connection nobody spotted is vital to progress, but the most influential science these days is done within networks, not only of individuals but of institutions, and at international level.

The Scoreboard shows that greater scientific specialisation and cross-border collaboration can result in increased innovation and the broader the collaboration, the higher the impact of the research. Top research remains highly concentrated though, with 40 of the world’s top 50 universities in the US when all disciplines are considered.  On a subject-by-subject basis, the picture is more varied, with the UK playing a leading role in social sciences, and China with 6 of the top 50 in pharmacology, toxicology and pharmaceutics.

Patents are another way of tracking the impact of science. However, the best level of protection is subject to debate. If protection is weak, technology that exploits an innovation will spread more quickly, boosting growth. At the same time, weak protection reduces the incentive to spend money on R&D.

The quality of patents themselves can be a problem. The Scoreboard’s data show that quality has fallen by 20% over the past two decades in nearly all the countries studied. “The rush to protect even minor improvements in products or services is overburdening patent offices. This slows the time to market for true innovations and reduces the potential for breakthrough inventions.”

One of the most striking parts of the industry section of the STI Scoreboard is the relative decline of manufacturing in OECD countries. In 1990 the G7 countries accounted for two-thirds of world manufacturing value added but they now account for less than half. By 2009, China had almost caught up with the US (and may have overtaken it by now).

The good news for OECD countries is that investment in the intangible assets expected to be the new sources of growth, such as education and skills or organisation, is growing.

Are all patents being filed true innovations? Who is leading this global race? Find out more in this video

Can we still use the F-word?

Sven? My lawyers would like a word with you...

Hi!™ You may have seen this article in Techcrunch at the end of the year claiming that F*book was trying to trademark the word “face”.  It seems they’ve got every right to try, in the US at least, according to the US Patent and Trademark Office’s list of current and pending trademarks.

According to the USPTO, your face is dead, while Pottyface seems to be doing just fine. I’ll bet that somewhere in Switzerland, David B. is feeling sick though. He abandoned his trademark in 2007. That said, I’m not convinced 600 million people would have signed up for ankle socks and shower shoes called Face.

Anyway, you can trademark a word you didn’t make up yourself. But what is a trademark? According to this OECD working paper, just about any kind of sign can be a TM, including combinations of colours or sounds, if it is used to distinguish goods or services.

The Facebook bid isn’t in fact as outrageous as it first seems since the protection would only cover social networking businesses that tried to cash in on the Facebook brand. However, it does raise questions about the value of intellectual property, what can and can’t be protected, and whether protection is beneficial to society as a whole.

If intellectual property protection is weak, then technology that exploits an innovation will spread more quickly, boosting growth. At the same time, weak protection reduces the incentive to spend money on R&D. 

As we mention in the Insights book on international trade, history provides some interesting examples to fuel the debate on the ideal level of intellectual property protection.

One of the most quoted ones is the light bulb. Joseph Swan patented a carbon filament lamp in England in 1878, and Thomas Edison patented essentially the same thing a year later in the US. At that time, there were no patent laws in the Netherlands, so in 1891 Royal Philips Electronics, as Philips was known at the time, could simply take the invention and turn it into the money spinner that would finance the firm’s expansion and inventions of its own.

Ericsson did something similar in 1876: it reverse-engineered Bell’s telephone, which he hadn’t patented in Sweden.

Some of the most controversial issues concern biotechnology, often presented as the right to patent life. In the 1980s, the OECD argued that discoveries regarding the chemical processes involved could be accorded protection as intellectual property

However, in the mid-2000s a company that developed a genetic test for cancer wanted to keep complete control of the testing and the databanks built up while doing it.

The OECD Guidelines for the Licensing of Genetic Inventions came out strongly against this, saying that yes, intellectual property should be protected, but it should also be shared. Health benefits should not be restricted by patent protection. Likewise, strict privacy guidelines were defined to protect the rights of the public.

Useful links

OECD work on intellectual assets and value creation

OECD work on intellectual property rights

OECD work on counterfeiting and piracy