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Science and engineering report shows continued loss of U.S. dominance

The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, which is funded by the NSF. (T. Abbott/NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The United States has continued to fall from its position as the uncontested world leader in science and engineering, according to a federal report on scientific investment and education released Wednesday.

The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, a federal statistical agency within the National Science Foundation, took the pulse of American science by compiling research expenditures, journal articles, the scientific workforce and education data. The NSF submits this state-of-the-science report to Congress every two years.

The report identifies several obstacles and declines. “There’s no denying that the U.S. science and engineering enterprise faces head winds,” Diane Souvaine, the chair of the National Science Board, told reporters on Tuesday.

“Fifty-nine years ago, President Kennedy sent America on a path to the moon,” she said. “Today we find ourselves again in an hour of challenge and change.”

What the report found on investment:

The U.S. economy is tightly bound to science and technology. Since World War II, these advancements have driven 85 percent of economic growth, said Julia Phillips, chair of the National Science Board’s science policy committee.

In 2017, the United States spent $548 billion on research and development. That’s more than any other country. Business investments have driven growth of research and development spending, which has increased by about 4 percent each year since the turn of the century.

But, on the global stage, the U.S. share in R&D has been shrinking while the world’s total swelled to more than $2 trillion — an overall tripling of investments between 2000 and 2017. In 2000, nearly 40 cents of each dollar used for R&D was spent in the United States. By 2017, the U.S. portion was down to 25 cents.

Much of the growth has been in Asia; China, which was responsible for 32 percent of the increase in those 17 years, is probably the world’s largest R&D performer. “China may already have surpassed the U.S. in total expenditures at some point in 2019,” Phillips said, based on a National Science Board projection.

Phillips drew a distinction between two types of science expenses, what she called “fundamental research” vs. “experimental development.” Fundamental research, which includes theoretical and applied work, generates new knowledge, she said. The United States spends more in this area than any other country, by a significant amount. This, Phillips said, is the “seed corn” of American science and engineering enterprise. The government funded $76 billion of that research in 2017. Businesses funded an additional $85 billion.

Countries such as China, in contrast, have devoted proportionally more money to experimental development. That funds the creation of new things — improved materials or devices, for instance — rather than knowledge.

On education and employment:

The science and engineering workforce grew faster than overall workforce, a trend that has remained true since 1960. Many of these workers were born in other countries. Nearly 6 in 10 people with PhDs in the workforce, according to the report, are foreign-born.

In 2016, about 800,000 students in the United States earned bachelor’s degrees, or the equivalent, in a science or engineering field. European Union countries produced almost a million undergraduates with these degrees. China awarded 1.7 million, the report said.

International students also make up large numbers of undergraduate and graduate degrees in U.S. science and engineering. In 2017, people with temporary visas earned a third of science and engineering doctoral degrees. Many of these students remain an important part of the scientific community in the United States, staying to work for years after graduation.

First-year enrollments of foreign students, however, have fallen from their peak numbers in 2016. China and India have become competitors for attracting skilled international students. “Amid the global bidding war for talent, we need to avoid complacency,” Phillips said.

A survey by international educators suggested that nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric in the United States may have contributed to the recent decline in foreign students, CNN reported in November.

“While other countries work hard to attract international students, we are managing to send a message that talented foreigners are not welcome here, just when we most need them,” Ángel Cabrera, president of George Mason University, said in a statement to The Washington Post in 2018.

And diversity:

In overall numbers, more women are in the scientific workforce than ever before, the new report said, as are black, Hispanic and other minority scientists and engineers. But because the number of jobs also increased, women and minorities remain underrepresented in most fields.

Change has been slow. Women held 29 percent of science and engineering jobs in 2017, the report said. In 2003, that share was 23 percent. Underrepresented minorities rose from 9 percent of the workforce to 13 percent over the same period.

“The science and engineering enterprise in the United States ideally should reflect our population in race, ethnicity and gender,” Phillips said. "It’s clear that we have a long way to go.”

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