On July 28, 1987, President Ronald Reagan set forth what became known as the “11-point superconductivity initiative” in a speech to the Federal Conference on Commercial Applications of Superconductivity. As a part of President Reagan’s superconductivity initiative he proposed amendments to the antitrust laws to make it easier for companies to collaborate with respect to basic research, he requested changes to the Freedom of Information Act to allow national laboratories to keep basic scientific research secret and he required the United States Patent Office to proceed with all due speed on applications relating to superconductivity technologies. In this speech President Reagan explained: “We need to strengthen patent laws to increase protection for manufacturing processes and speed up the patent process so that it can keep pace with the fast-paced world of high technology.” This caused the US Patent Office to allow Petitions to Make Special to be filed along with applications relating to superconductivity inventions so as to accelerate the examination process. See MPEP 708.02. This is exactly what we need to do today for green technologies. While I am not foolish enough to suspect much of Reagan’s agenda will be adopted by President Obama, this is one lesson President Obama should learn from. Expediting patent applications on green innovations will help the economy, make the world more environmentally friendly and improve US national security.
Superconductivity is a phenomenon observed in certain materials which, when cooled (to temperatures ranging from near absolute zero (-459 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 degrees Kelvin, -273 degrees Celsius) to liquid nitrogen temperatures (-321 F, 77 K, -196 C), exhibit no electrical resistance. Because superconducting materials have no electrical resistance at such temperatures they can carry large amounts of electrical current for long periods of time without losing energy as heat. See How Stuff Works. What lead to President Reagan’s superconductivity initiatives was the breakthrough research of K. Alex Mueller and J. Georg Bednorz, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1987, relating to the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity in a new class of materials. Mueller and Bednorz startled the world by reporting superconductivity in a ceramic material at a then-record-high temperature — 33 degrees above absolute zero. This discovery set off an avalanche of research worldwide and lead to President Reagan wanting to do whatever the government could to ensure that America would play a dominant role in superconductivity moving forward. See History of Superconductors.
This desire to move forward with superconductivity research reached into President George H.W. Bush’s term in Office. In a message to Congress on April 5, 1989, President Bush explained:
Believing that the R&D of today is the goods and services of tomorrow, and believing that further discoveries in superconductivity hold enormous potential for applications, President Reagan signed into law on November 19, 1988, the “National Superconductivity and Competitiveness Act of 1988,” which establishes a framework for a national program in superconductivity. He also named a National Commission on Superconductivity to provide guidance over the long term, as the real benefits from superconductivity may take years or decades to fully realize. Our goal as a nation is to lead the world in superconductivity R&D and in translating this new technology into useful products.
As it turns out, much of what superconductivity was thought to bring about has remained illusive. In fact, the magnetic properties of superconductors have been more useful in a larger variety of applications than the lack of resistance. For example, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines use superconductors to deliver a strong magnetic field, which in turn allows for an extremely detailed image useful as an important diagnostic tool for a variety of injuries and ailments. The magnetic properties of superconducters have also been used in particle accelerators. Superconductors can also be used to stabilize power grids. See Uses of Superconductors.
The fact that superconductivity has not resulted in the panacea that was thought possible does not mean that the Reagan approach was flawed. In forcing the US Patent Office to accelerate patent applications relating to superconductivity technologies President Reagan did exactly the right thing. It is widely known that President Reagan was not a fan of government involvement, and in his speech on July 27, 1987, he even joked:
We also want to see how we in government can do our part in helping this process along. Now, I have to confess that I’m one of those people who, when the Government offers to help, gets very nervous. We’ve learned from experience that the helping hand of government too often has a crushing weight. I’m reminded of what Wernher von Braun once said about America’s space program. He said, “We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.”
Nevertheless, President Reagan did take the step to require accelerated examination of patent applications. This didn’t cost the government billions of dollars, or even millions of dollars. It just required President Reagan telling the Patent Office to make it so. I realize that in the climate of Washington, DC today, our leaders believe that problems require money, and lots of it. The truth is that not every problem requires money to be spent, and this is an example of a situation where setting priorities is far more important than spending money, although a little more money for the Patent Office would be appreciated.
President Obama needs to issue an Executive Order with all due speed and order the Patent Office to accelerate examination of patent applications that relate to green technologies. We do have in place an accelerated examination procedure, but those who use that procedure are either stupid or just plain desperate to receive a patent in a technologically relevant time frame. The filing of an Examination Support Document is a non-starter, particularly when you are pursuing protection for foundational research, which is costly to pursue. No one in their right mind would ever follow the accelerated examination procedure in place at the Patent Office for something as fundamentally important as green technologies.
With the enormous and growing backlog of patent applications at the Patent Office we need to provide incentive for industry to pursue new technologies that will create jobs, reduce energy consumption and improve US national security through energy independence. If the Patent Office takes green technologies out of order, and actually issues patents, that will create assets that can be used to raise capital. Capital raised will be used to expand, hire and move forward, which is exactly what the US economy needs. So, President Obama, if you really want to play a leadership role in the green movement, you need to immediately sign an Executive Order allowing green technologies to be accelerated at the Patent Office without the need to submit an Examination Support Document. If you are unwilling to take this sensible, practically free approach to spurring such important innovation it will be impossible for anyone in the scientific community to take you at all serious about pursuing environmentally friendly technologies. And, by the way, while you are at it, you might also want to direct the USPTO to issue patents as well. It couldn’t hurt, right?