Some See Prosperity, Others Pork in New Denver Patent Office

July 2, 2012

BICKERS: “I’d like to see a reason clearly stated for why it’s needed at all. Right now, it seems mostly like an attempt at attracting attention and favor in a swing state.”

WASHINGTON – The Denver metro area has been selected as a future home of a new regional patent office, Obama administration officials said Monday.  But the decision to locate the new facility in Colorado has some wondering if the decision has more to do with politics than patents.

The satellite office is expected to generate hundreds of government jobs and $389.2 million for the local economy within five years of its opening in 2014, according to local, state, and federal estimates. Its main beneficiary is expected to be college-educated professionals, hundreds of whom will be hired as patent examiners for starting salaries of $90,000 a year plus benefits.

“The new office will provide a boost to the growing high-tech industries in Colorado such as bioscience, clean energy, and aerospace fields,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said in a statement.

“By expanding our operation outside the Washington metro area for the first time in our agency’s 200-year history, we are taking unprecedented steps to recruit a diverse range of talented technical experts, creating new opportunities across the American workforce,” David Kappos, director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, said in a prepared statement.

Reducing the backlog of patent applications and improving the quality of their examination were the USPTO’s stated reasons for creating regional offices. The federal agency reported that 535,188 patent applications were filed last year and the average time for each of the nearly 25,000 that were granted took 33.9 months.

The Denver-Aurora-Bloomfield region was selected at least in part for its appeal to college-educated and highly skilled professionals. In its announcement, the Patent Office described the region as a “sought-after place to live and work with a relatively low-cost of living — a critical combination for the recruitment and retention of top talent.”

But some conservatives have attributed political motives to the Obama administration’s interventions in Colorado, which is considered a tossup state in the presidential election this fall.

Kenneth Bickers, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the selection of the patent office in Colorado could be considered pork or federal largesse. “I’d like to see a reason clearly stated for why it’s needed at all,” he said in an interview. “Right now, it seems mostly like an attempt at attracting attention and favor in a swing state.”

Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for Sen. Bennet, disputed the suggestion that the selection of the Denver area was politicized. “This was a bipartisan effort in the state to get the patent office, from all levels of government and the business community. This speaks to the fact that the state and region made a case to the nation on the merits. I don’t think anyone needs to look in to it more than that,” he said in an interview.

A coalition of local and regional universities, professional groups, local chambers of commerce, and business organizations submitted the Denver-area’s case to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in the form of a 266-page report last January. “Accelerating Innovation: The Case for a Satellite Patent Office in Colorado” argued that the Denver region could boost the region’s economy, not least because of its international airport and high quality of life.

In addition, the Denver-area was one of four regions to receive a regional patent office. San Jose, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Detroit were the others, none of which are in states considered tossups in November.

Yet political considerations are never too far below the surface in an election year regardless of the administration’s partisan affiliation. Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod said in a National Journal story last year that Sen. Bennet’s victory over a  Republican challenger in 2010 was “particularly instructive,” because his coalition included young people, minorities, and highly educated professionals. The “Colorado Strategy” has become a political shorthand for appealing to a “coalition of the ascendant.”

Bickers said if the awarding of the patent office to the Denver area was pork, it could have a marginal but decisive influence. “This gives the president some political talking points (in Colorado) and the creation of jobs in this economy helps him,” he said.

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