NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Privatizing R&D: Patent Policy and the Commercialization of National Laboratory Technologies

Adam B. Jaffe, Josh Lerner

NBER Working Paper No. 7064
Issued in April 1999
NBER Program(s):   PR

Despite their magnitude and potential economic impact, federal R&D expenditures outside of research universities have been little scrutinized by economists. This paper examines whether the series of initiatives since 1980 that have sought to encourage the patenting and technology transfer at the national laboratories have had a significant impact, and how the features of these facilities affected their success in commercialization. Employing both case studies of and databases about the U.S. Department of Energy's laboratories, we challenge much of the conventional wisdom. The policy changes of the 1980s had a substantial impact on the patenting activity by the national laboratories, which have gradually reached parity in patents per R&D dollar with research universities. Using citation data, we show that, unlike universities, the quality of the laboratory patents has remained constant or even increased as their numbers have grown. The cross-sectional patterns are generally consistent with theoretical suggestions regarding the impact and determinants of the decision to privatize government functions.

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Published: "Reinventing Public R&D: Patent Law and Technology Transfer from Federal Laboratories", Rand Journal of Economics, 32 (Spring 2001) 167-198.

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