Knowledge Transfer

Knowledge transfer makes it possible for technology or knowledge developed for one purpose to be applied and used elsewhere or used for a different purpose. For invention and innovation, the sources of knowledge include direct outputs of R&D as well as the human capital gained by scientists, engineers, and inventors as they create and develop new and useful products and processes. Scientific discoveries and inventions suit many uses, and scientists and engineers add to the stock of knowledge through their discoveries. As knowledge and human capital accumulate and disseminate widely, new discoveries and innovations build on those that came before. Significant feedback mechanisms (often complex and numerous) may magnify the ultimate impact of innovation activities.

However, for knowledge to flow into innovation, invention and patenting are not enough; knowledge transfer is critical. Knowledge transfer takes place through the systematic activities of individual researchers as they collaborate, through the organized activities of institutions and governments, and through market activities. This section presents several knowledge transfer indicators. First, the section presents two measures based on S&E publication output: (1) coauthoring of peer-reviewed S&E publications between business-affiliated and academic authors, and (2) the citation of peer-reviewed publications within patent documents. Both indicate the sharing of S&E research knowledge across sectors of the economy.

Next, the section presents indicators related to technology transfer as reported by federal agencies and academic institutions, including technology licensing activities, collaborative agreements, and support for startups. Within the federal government, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs provide support for startups. As primary producers of research, academic institutions and federal labs have active technology transfer programs to provide potentially useful research to businesses and others. The section ends with a market-based measure of technology transfer: global flows of licensing receipts.

Business Collaboration in Peer-Reviewed Publications

Coauthorship on research publications indicates knowledge flow through collaboration between researchers and institutions. This form of collaboration can represent a range of activities from coauthoring the content to sharing data or research tools. This collaboration is observable when both collaborators have their names on the publication (Katz and Martin 1997). Business collaborations with universities have outsized impacts compared with other coauthoring combinations. A study of publications from 12 high-ranking private universities between 2012 and 2016 found that publications from research collaborations with businesses had the highest citation impacts (Shneiderman 2018).

The vast majority (84% or 44,053) of U.S. business-sector publications in 2018 have multiple authors (Table 8-1). Of these, more than half were coauthored with U.S. academic researchers (26,896). Government-coauthored publications accounted for another 14% (7,113) of business publications. Reflecting the importance of international knowledge flows, 37% (19,430) of the business-sector publications included coauthors from institutions in more than one country (Table 8-1). For more information on scientific publications, see Indicators 2020 report "Publications Output: U.S. Trends and International Comparisons."

U.S. business-sector publications with other U.S. sectors and foreign institutions: 2008 and 2018

(Number and percent)

Publications are classified by their publication and are assigned to a sector based on the institutional address(es) listed within. Each publication is credited to a sector based on the institution type. Each collaborating institution is credited as co-authoring in this table when the listed authors come from different sectors. The publication is counted as one count in the sector (whole-counting). Publications can be authored by collaborators in multiple sectors, thus the sum of publications coauthored with various sectors can exceed the total. Publications from unknown U.S. sectors are not shown.


National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation; Science-Metrix; U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; Elsevier, Scopus abstract and citation database, accessed June 2019.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Citations of Peer-Reviewed Research in Patents

Patent documents filed with the USPTO include citations to prior art, which refers to published patents and patent applications as well as to peer-reviewed research and other published documents (nonpatent literature). Citations of S&E articles in patent documents provide another indicator of knowledge as an input to invention. (See Table S8-60 for detailed data on the number of citations to S&E publications in USPTO patents by author’s sector and cited field of science.)

About 45% (290,483) of the citations in USPTO utility patents to peer-reviewed literature in 2018 were to U.S. S&E articles, and two-thirds (196,003) of these were to articles from the U.S. academic sector (Table S8-60). U.S. S&E articles in biological and biomedical sciences, along with articles in health sciences, account for more than half of academic citations in patents (Figure 8-18, shown on a log scale).

Keyboard instructions

Log scale of citations of U.S. S&E articles in USPTO utility patents, by selected sector and S&E field: 2018


A log scale value of less than 1 represents a citation fractional count of less than 1. This can happen when a paper is coauthored and credit is divided among the authors.


National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation; Science-Metrix; PatentsView, USPTO, accessed April 2019; Elsevier, Scopus abstract and citation database, accessed July 2019. See Table S8-60.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Academic institutions and the federal government together perform over a fifth of U.S. R&D (Indicators 2020 report “Research and Development: U.S. Trends and International Comparisons”). Technology transfer activities help bring knowledge and technology developed in those settings into the hands of those with abilities to apply, further develop, and eventually commercialize the research. These activities include licensing of patents, support for startup companies that use these licenses, cooperative R&D agreements, and other kinds of partnerships.

Alongside patenting and licensing, technology transfer can occur through various other channels, such as scientific dissemination through publications, conference papers, and working papers; exchanges of lab personnel with outside organizations that have R&D needs; and collaborative agreements and activities to find dual uses for technologies and products with both commercial and federal applications.

Technology Transfer by Academic Institutions and Federal Labs

Technology transfer is the way that technology or knowledge developed in one place or for one purpose is applied and used in another place for the same or different purpose. Scientific discoveries and inventions flow into economic activity through freely accessible dissemination (e.g., open scientific and technical literature, person-to-person exchanges) and market-based transactions (e.g., patent licensing, formal collaborative R&D relationships that provide intellectual property protections, use of copyrighted materials). Organizations in academia, government, business, and nonprofit sectors all have policies and activities directed at identifying new knowledge and technology and helping transfer them where they can be applied, further developed, and eventually commercialized as new products and processes. Most statistics on technology transfer address university and federal government technology transfer policies, less is known about the technology transfer that happens within the private or nonprofit sectors.

Universities began to collect and share technology transfer metrics in an organized way following the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which provided clear guidance on how universities could control their inventions (Choudry and Ponzio 2019). While patenting is an indicator of invention, the licensing of patented technologies is a key activity for university technology transfer offices. Both patenting and licensing are key components of the regularly reported data for universities, along with startups based on university technology (AUTM 2018).

Inventors with academic affiliations received almost 7,000 patents in 2018; this accounted for about 4% of the USPTO patents granted to U.S. inventors (Figure 8-1). Over the last decade, inventions, licensing, and technology-linked startups at academic institutions have grown rapidly, although from a relatively small base, as shown by the data collected by the AUTM (Table 8-2). As a cumulative indicator, active licenses from universities exceeded 45,000 in 2017 (Table 8-2).

University technology transfer activity indicators: 2007, 2012, and 2017

(Number of activities)

AUTM collects data on invention and patent-related activities of its member universities. The number of member universities varies slightly from year to year. There were 161 in 2007, 165 in 2015, and 167 in 2017. The response rate of the survey in 2017 was 61.9% (AUTM 2018). Responding institutions may report for any 12-month period ending in the identified year.


AUTM, AUTM Licensing Survey (various years), accessed 5 May 2019.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Seven federal agencies conduct more than $1 billion of R&D annually and account for most of the annual total of federal technology transfer activities (Indicators 2020 report “Research and Development: U.S. Trends and International Comparisons”). However, nearly all agencies and their associated federal labs promote the transfer of government-developed inventions with potential for commercial applications. Compared with businesses, patenting occurs less frequently among federal labs. Of the 153,000 patents granted to U.S. assignees in 2018, just over 1,300 patents had government assignees (Figure 8-1). Similar to university technology transfer metrics, federal labs use patenting and licensing statistics as technology transfer metrics; thus, this report presents these activities in this section.

However, technology transfer activities differ in emphasis across agencies (Table 8-3). The Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Health and Human Services exhibit particularly intensive licensing activity. The Departments of Commerce and Defense participate in relatively large numbers of cooperative R&D agreements, while the Department of Agriculture has by far the most other collaborative R&D relationships.

Federal laboratory technology transfer activity indicators, by selected agencies: FYs 2006, 2009, 2012, and 2016

(Number of activities)

NA = not available.

DOD = Department of Defense; HHS = Department of Health and Human Services; DOE = Department of Energy; NASA = National Aeronautics and Space Administration; USDA = Department of Agriculture; DOC = Department of Commerce; DHS = Department of Homeland Security; CRADA = Cooperative R&D Agreement.


The table includes seven federal departments and agencies that reported R&D obligations at or above $1 billion in FY 2014. (The National Science Foundation was also in this group, but its corresponding data were not available.) Other federal agencies not listed but included in the All federal laboratories totals are the Department of the Interior, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Invention licenses refer to inventions that are patented or could be patented. CRADAs refers to all agreements executed under CRADA authority (15 U.S.C. 3710a). Traditional CRADAs are collaborative R&D partnerships between a federal laboratory and one or more nonfederal organizations. Federal agencies have varying authorities for other kinds of collaborative R&D relationships.


National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), U.S. Department of Commerce, Federal Laboratory Technology Transfer, Fiscal Year 2016: Summary Report to the President and the Congress (2019), Federal Laboratory Technology Transfer, Fiscal Year 2013. Summary Report to the President and the Congress (2015), and Federal Laboratory Technology Transfer, Fiscal Year 2010. Summary Report to the President and the Congress (2012); National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), U.S. Department of Commerce, Federal Lab Technology Transfer Database v.2015. Accessed 10 January 2020.

Beyond invention licensing, NASA has made the release and licensing of NASA-developed software an emphasis of its technology transfer activities. In addition to the statistics shown in Table 8-3, NASA releases its own statistics on software. In FY 2016, NASA executed over 2,600 new software usage agreements, more than double the amount executed in 2011, and it released 550 software products into the public domain (National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST] 2019). NIST’s annual reports provide more detail about agency-level focus in technology transfer.

Federal Policies and Programs to Reduce Barriers to Innovation

Over the last 30 years, many national policies and related programs have aimed to support businesses in exploiting new technologies for commercial applications and implementing innovations, without requiring the government to make decisions better left to the competitive marketplace. The government has recognized that structural and market barriers—often termed technological and commercial “valleys of death”—may create difficult-to-bridge gaps for the innovation process and for otherwise promising new technologies (Branscomb and Auerswald 2002). The government has launched several federal-wide programs intended to strengthen the development and flow of early-stage technologies into the commercial marketplace. Other policy initiatives have focused on accelerating the commercial exploitation of academic R&D and encouraging R&D ideas and technologies with commercial potential by small or minority-owned businesses.


By budget authority, the most substantial federal programs are the longstanding SBIR and STTR programs. These two programs provide competitively awarded funding to small businesses for stimulating technological innovation, addressing federal R&D needs, increasing private-sector commercialization of innovations flowing from federal R&D, and fostering technology transfer through cooperative R&D between small businesses and research institutions.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) provides overall coordination for both programs, with implementation by the federal agencies that participate (SBA 2015). Agencies contribute based on their R&D budgets, and both programs provide awards to firms with fewer than 500 employees. Awardees use the funding to assess the scientific and technical feasibility of ideas that may have commercial potential. Beginning in 1983 with 785 awards, the SBIR program conferred over 4,800 awards in 2018, accounting for almost $3 billion in funding in that year (Table 8-4).

SBIR and STTR awards funding, by type of award: Selected years, FYs 1983–2018

(Number of awards and funding in millions of dollars)

na = not applicable.

SBIR = Small Business Innovation Research; STTR = Small Business Technology Transfer.


The first SBIR program awards were made in FY 1983. The first STTR program award was made in FY 1995. Funding data are awarded amount through FY 2014; obligated amount in FY 2015 and later.


Small Business Administration, SBIR/STTR official website, accessed 5 June 2019.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Established a decade after the SBIR program, the STTR program facilitates cooperative R&D by small businesses, universities, and nonprofit research organizations and encourages the transfer of technology developed through such research by entrepreneurial small businesses. The STTR program had 404 awards in 2000, and in 2018, there were 793 awards with a total funding of $383 million (Table 8-4).

Other Federal Programs

Other federal programs typically have objectives that closely reflect specific agency missions and draw resources at levels well below SBIR and STTR. Table 8-5 briefly describes several of the larger programs currently run by federal R&D-performing agencies. Table S8-61 provides greater detail on such federal agency policies and programs.

Examples of federal policies and programs supporting early-stage technology development and innovation

(Summary of program goals and activities for selected federal agencies)

The table summarizes examples of policy and program information collected during the spring and fall of 2017 from federal staff for a selected set of U.S. agencies with major R&D and technology development activities. The table reflects agency responses. For a more comprehensive list of federal policies and programs see Table S8-61.


National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation; SRI International, special tabulations of federal program information (2017). See Table S8-61.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Global Flows of Payments for Intellectual Property: Trade in Licensing and Fees

Licensing allows intellectual property developed within firms to be used externally; globally active businesses transfer their intellectual property across national boundaries, exploiting opportunities in external markets. This intellectual property includes the use of proprietary rights—patents, trademarks, copyrights, industrial processes, and designs—and licenses to reproduce or distribute intellectual property embodied in produced originals, prototypes, live performances, and televised broadcasts (World Trade Organization 2016).

Income from outside the country that U.S. firms receive for the use of their intellectual property is a component of global exports of services; thus, it plays an important role in understanding the global balance of trade. (Indicators 2020 report “Production and Trade of Knowledge- and Technology-Intensive Industries” covers goods trade in R&D-intensive exports and knowledge-intensive services.) The export revenues from these types of transactions, known as “charges for the use of intellectual property,” provide a broad indicator of technology flows across the global economy and the value of an economy’s intellectual property in the international marketplace.

Global export revenues (receipts for the use of intellectual property) totaled $315 billion in 2017 according to the World Trade Organization, the organization that collects these data from national offices and compiles them internationally (Figure 8-19). Unlike patenting, which increasingly takes place in middle-income countries, licensing income for intellectual property continues to be mainly a high-income country source of revenue. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of these services; exports increased from $102 billion in 2008 to $128 billion in 2017 (Figure 8-19). U.S. imports also expanded, but the United States maintains a surplus between exports and imports for this category. The EU, the world’s second-largest exporter, imports more than it exports, resulting in a substantial deficit. Japan, the third-largest exporter of intellectual property services, has a substantial trade surplus. Japan’s global export share remained stable between 2008 and 2017 (Figure 8-19). Outside of high-income countries, receipts for the use of intellectual property are lower; however, as with USPTO patenting, the U.S. global share of export receipts fell—in this case from 49% in 2008 to 41% in 2017 (Figure 8-19).

Exports and imports of intellectual property (charges for their use), by selected region, country, or economy: 2008–17

EU = European Union; ROW = rest of the world.


These are payments for the use of proprietary rights (such as patents, trademarks, copyrights, industrial processes and designs including trade secrets, franchises). These rights can arise from research and development, as well as from marketing. These charges also include those for licenses to reproduce or distribute intellectual property embodied in produced originals or prototypes (such as copyrights on books and manuscripts, computer software, cinematographic works, and sound recordings) and related rights (such as for live performances and television, cable, or satellite broadcast). EU exports do not include intra-EU exports. EU imports do not include intra-EU imports.


World Trade Organization, trade and tariff data, accessed 27 September 2019.

Science and Engineering Indicators