What's Happening to American Innovation?

By Richard Florida

As we saw yesterday, Michael Mandel argues that commercial innovation in the U.S. has slowed in recent years. To shed light on this, my team and I tracked U.S. patent data since 1980.

The first graph above tracks patent applications and patents granted from 1980 to 2005. Overall, the trend-lines are up. The line is steeper for patent applications, but it also tracks consistently upward for actual patents granted. There are significant dips after the tech-crunch of 2001 and in the wake of the financial bubble, even before the economic crisis of 2008. But those dips do little to throw off the basic upward trajectory of American innovation. In 2007, the overall level of patents granted was significantly higher than a decade earlier.

The second graph below controls for population, tracking the trend in patents per 10,000 residents. The trend-lines tell much the same story. Despite two recent dips, the overall trend in patenting is up considerably over the past decade.

The evidence here does not appear to indicate a significant innovation shortfall. The most we can say is that the rate of innovation has leveled off in recent years when we control for population. Nonetheless, the overall trajectory of American innovation remains consistently up.

As we will see tomorrow, the picture gets a bit more complicated when we parse patents by U.S.-born (resident) and foreign (non-resident) inventors.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2009/07/whats-happening-to-american-innovation/20569/