Six life scientists started work for the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) this week, marking the first additions to the ranks of biotechnology patent examiners since the federal budget bogged down in Congress last fall. The USPTO positions are coveted stepping-stones, but where they lead has changed in recent years.

The six life scientists are joining 48 electrical engineers in this year's entering class of examiners, and offers are out to many more scientists, said Esther Kepplinger, deputy commissioner for patent operations. The budget delay forced the office to scale back its goal of hiring 750 new examiners this year. Instead, only 300 new examiners will be hired in 2003, chosen from a field of 3,300 applicants. Just 15 of those slots are allocated to the biotech sector.

"Traditionally, our largest pool of applicants has been in biotech," said Kepplinger, a biologist and chemist who started her own career...

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