Name an industry in which the Japanese aren't pummeling Americans and it's likely to be a loser. If there is money to be made, the Japanese are making it and the Americans are spending it. Now America has the chance to excel in biotechnology that could lead to new cancer treatments, better medical devices and environmental and agricultural breakthroughs. But thanks to a snail's-pace American bureaucracy, the Japanese are poised to surpass the United States there, too.

Biotechnology is a science still in its infancy but with a lucrative future. The United States holds a slight lead, but the Japanese are moving in, and the U.S. govern-ment's bungling could allow that to happen. The problem is red tape. Scientists and corporations that develop technological breakthroughs want the exclusive right to market their finds, and that means they need patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where the nightmare begins.Inventors and even some members of Congress are raising their voices to complain about how long it takes the patent office to approve applications. Some companies wait for years. Our associate Scott Sleek obtained a report, yet to be made public, from the General Accounting Office confirming that the patent office is crippling American entrepreneurs. Despite efforts to speed up the process, the backlog of applications in the patent office has increased. The number of applications has gone up 33 percent in the past year and a half. The applications still pending last year had been in the approval process for anywhere from two to four years - long enough to discourage a would-be inventor, and more than long enough for a foreign competitor to capture the market. This year, the patent office says it has reduced the waiting time to about two years - still a daunting prospect for entrepreneurs in a hurry to beat the competition.

Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has been trying to light a fire under the patent office. He thinks it needs more people and better computers. A spokesman for the office told us more biotechnology experts are being added, but the training takes time, and those with the expertise are courted by private industry too.

At stake is the future of biotechnology and who will control it. Biotechnology may be the most important scientific advance of the 21st century. Scientists are already testing special petroleum-eating bugs that can be used to clean up oil spills. Biogenetic engineering can develop a super strain of farm animals. Stronger and faster-growing trees can be developed. But no one wants to spill the secrets without a patent, and that means years of sitting on vital technology. Harvard University waited four years for a patent on a new form of cancer research. Harvard scientists created laboratory mice especially prone to cancer that could help medical researchers speed the search for a cure, but there was no speed at the patent office.

An Ivy League university can be patient, but small companies stake their solvency on inventions, and they can't afford to wait for the patent office to do its job. We recently reported that the federal government has failed on several fronts to spark American competitiveness. Inventions created with taxpayers' money in government labs are rarely commercialized despite federal laws to encourage the sharing of breakthroughs. Japan doesn't have that problem. There is a tighter relationship between business and government and no cumbersome bureaucracy to put the breaks on entrepreneurial spirit.

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