Patents, scientific papers provide clues to nations' technical vigor

May 31, 1991|By William J. Broad | William J. Broad,New York Times News Service

Sensitive indicators of a nation's technical vigor have been developed that depict a new world order in which Japan is soaring, the United States is struggling to avert decline and the Soviet Union is nearly out of the competition.

The findings are based on statistical methods that gauge the significance of a nation's patents and scientific papers by measuring how frequently they are cited.

For instance, a patent that is often referred to in other patent filings is judged to be more important and influential than one that generates no citations.

High-quality patents are seen by many experts as potent indicators of a nation's future prosperity because they signal the emergence of important new technologies that will be under the patent holder's exclusive control for many years to come.

So, too, superior scientific papers are considered important to a nation's industrial health because inventors increasingly rely on basic research to better compete in the international race for commercial innovations.

The detailed analysis of citations to patents and scientific papers, though laden with limitations and sometimes faulted as experimental, is seen as having attained a new level of maturity and respectability in recent years. The federal government has increasingly used the method to study technical trends.

An analysis of patents that compares the technical strengths of

1,100 companies around the world is to be marketed in June, giving managers, economists and stock analysts a more objective look at a company's technical health or sickness.

The findings of such analyses can be disquieting. For example, IBM, the computer and electronics giant, is seen as having been surpassed by Hitachi in 1985 in overall technical strength, with the gap growing wider in recent years.

The patent data, compiled by CHI Research Inc. of Haddon Heights, N.J., which tracks technical trends for the federal government and industrial clients, has also been analyzed in aggregate to discover the new world order among countries.

This feat was accomplished by grouping a nation's top companies or industrial associations and then comparing the group's overall citation strength to that of other countries' groups of leading companies and associations.

The new patent findings are considered important because they cutthrough the vast clutter of useless ideas and frivolous filings to show what is solid, innovative and enduring.

"It's scary," Dr. Francis Narin, CHIs president, said in an interview. "The Japanese are continuing to expand in virtually every area of technology. Anybody who believes that the Japanese increase is just in autos and electronics is totally oblivious of the facts. Their performance is impressive across the board, in virtually every field."

Daniel F. Burton Jr., executive vice president of the Council on Competitiveness, a private group in Washington, strongly agreed. "This shows that the Japanese drive is pretty deep," he said. "It's not just microwaves and toasters and VCRs. They're capable of mounting a challenge in the most sophisticated areas of technology."

Many analysts in the United States had remained confident about the outcome of the industrial competition because America's level of basic science was so high, implying that research and development, much of it produced in universities, would ultimately win the race.

But that scenario has been shaken by a new analysis of U.S. scientific papers by the Institute for Scientific Information in Philadelphia, which scrutinizes some 10 million footnotes a year from 3,200 scientific journals to discover what is hot and what is not.

Earlier this year the institute published an upbeat study that said that the quality of U.S. research had steadily risen over the last decade, as judged by the growing number of citations the research attracted.

But further analysis by the institute showed that the advances had occurred largely in academic fields, such as Earth science and environmental studies.

In contrast, technologies that are crucial to industrial vigor, including engineering, computer science, electronics, communications, robotics and instrumentation, suffered sharp declines over the latter part of the decade.

"It's surprising," said Dr. David A. Pendlebury of the institute, who noted that the earlier analysis had been widely interpreted as bolstering the image of U.S. technical pre-eminence.

Central to the ascendancy of the analysis of patents and scientific papers is the long-standing struggle by analysts to find LTC an objective way to judge the quality of work in science and technology.

Peer panels and awards are generally acknowledged to be highly subjective and sometimes wrong. And raw numbers as a measure of achievement can be deceptive.

Citation analysis was pioneered in the 1950s when a few analysts started to tally, by hand, the number of references made to a given scientific article.

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