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It's no secret that Japanese inventors have edged ahead of their U.S. counterparts.

But now, a new study financed by the National Science Foundation reveals just how far ahead. In measurements of the "significance" of patents how often they are cited in subsequent use the Japanese scored 26 percent higher than the Americans.Couple that statistic with the fact that last year, foreign inventors captured a record 47 percent of the 89,385 U.S. patents issued and it becomes clear just how much the United States has slipped in terms of technological applications.

For example, last year the top three recipients of U.S. patents were Cannon, Hitachi and Toshiba all Japanese firms.

One reason the Japanese continue to gain ground so quickly is the ratio of engineers to scientists in Japanese firms is about seven-to-one. In the United States, that ratio is one-to-one. While that gives the U.S. a decided edge in scientific papers, the U.S. is outmanned when it comes to applying that research.

Another reason, one cited by Donald Quigg, commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, is that American companies are too busy fighting hostile takeovers, building corporate empires, and wheeling and dealing, instead of investing in technology and development.

Whatever the reasons, Congress should offer tax incentives for investment in research, education initiatives that would foster inventiveness, and tighten patent laws to improve the protection of U.S. patents abroad.