Importance of filing patents for fundamental research

By Qi Yongqiang, Corner Stone & Partners

Recently, China’s Ministries of Education, and Science and Technology, and the National Intellectual Property Administration jointly issued Several Opinions on Enhancing the Quality of Patents Filed by Universities and Promoting Technology Transfer and Application, and Several Opinions on Regulating the Use of SCI (a Science Citation Index) Papers-Related Indicators at Universities and Establishing Sound Assessment Orientation.

Qi Yongqiang
Corner Stone & Partners

Under these new policies, the heavily criticized patent subsidy programme at colleges and universities has been terminated, and patent technology transfer has become a new indicator for assessing the strength of colleges and universities. The importance of SCI papers has also been reduced and SCI papers-related indicators have ceased to be a major factor in assessing researchers’ performance.

Under the new policies, the author believes that a contrast will appear in patent filing by researchers based in colleges and universities. Those who are truly confident about their scientific research findings will increase their patent applications, while those whose research findings have little or no practical implications will not apply for patents. Thus, a favourable opportunity has arrived for fundamental research academics to apply for patents.

Although people based in a variety of settings may apply for patents, it is especially important for researchers based in colleges and universities to file patents for their fundamental research findings. Some university researchers will still hold that the publication of research papers outweighs patent filing, because the latter costs more than the former. But a patent may become an important source of income whereby researchers can obtain economic benefits through patent licensing or patent transfer.

Scientific research is divided into fundamental research, applied research and development research. Data from patent databases reveal that the patents filed by colleges and universities mostly come from applied and development research findings, and few of them come from fundamental research findings. That is because a patent is usually the product of applied research, which is market-oriented, while the publication of papers is the product of fundamental research, which is knowledge-oriented.

A patent is intended to gain economic benefits, and fundamental research is a source of great innovation. The 60 most influential patented technologies in the world today, including the internet, AI, 3D printing, quantum computers, mobile communications, and human genome mapping all result from strengthening fundamental research and transforming its findings into great innovations. It can be seen that fundamental research, as the basis for significant technological innovation, may result in high-quality patents with the evolution of its findings.

There is a big gap in patent quality between China and other major countries including the US, Germany, Japan and South Korea, although China has made significant strides. The gap usually results from applicants pursuing immediate benefits and neglecting fundamental studies. Therefore, we advise that China’s colleges and universities take advantage of the new policies to increase patent applications relating to fundamental research findings, which is one of the best ways to acquire commercial profits through inventions.

Patent applications filed by each of the top 10 Chinese colleges and universities number up to 3,000 each year, 10 times or more the amount of patent applications filed by some world-class universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University or Harvard University, where patent application counts are 200-300 each year. For example, Tsinghua University filed about 3,500 patent applications in 2019, more than the total of patent applications filed by the other 10 world-class universities.

China’s colleges and universities cannot compare with world-class ones in research quality, but have more than 10 times the latter’s patent applications, which may indicate the patents filed by the former lack quality. Although the patent applications from these world-class universities are less than one-tenth of those from China’s colleges and universities, most of their patents are filed and applied worldwide, with as many as 10 countries fully covered. In general, the patent applications they filed are in the thousands, and their patents’ values are mostly much higher than that of the Chinese universities’ patents, which those colleges and universities should learn from them.

In conclusion, China’s colleges and universities should reduce the amount of their patent applications to a normal level and concentrate on patent filing related to fundamental research findings, with the patent strategy aimed at the whole world. In the meanwhile, considering the importance of filing patents for fundamental research findings, China’s colleges and universities should provide more support for fundamental studies, make quality a foremost assessment indicator, and lead researchers to serious studies, thus contributing to an increase in patent quality.

Qi Yongqiang is a partner at Corner Stone & Partners.

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