America's S&T Leadership At Risk, Group Warns

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Publication date: 
17 March 2005

"For more than half a century, the United States has led the world in scientific discovery and innovation.... However, in today's rapidly evolving competitive world, the United States can no longer take its supremacy for granted. Nations from Europe to Eastern Asia are on a fast track to pass the United States in scientific excellence and technological innovation." - Task Force on the Future of American Innovation

"The United States still leads the world in research and discovery, but our advantage is rapidly eroding, and our global competitors may soon overtake us." That is the conclusion of a report by the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation. The task force, according to Council on Competitiveness President Deborah Wince-Smith, is a coalition of high-tech companies, business associations, higher education groups, and scientific organizations (including the American Physical Society, an AIP Member Society). These organizations joined together to draw attention to "troubling trends" in U.S. science and technology, with a particular focus on basic research in the physical sciences and engineering. At a February 16 press briefing, members of the task force released a brief report that compiles a series of indicators to make the case that the U.S. dominance in S&T is in danger, and "it is essential that we act now."

The coalition is urging action now, Wince-Smith explained, because tight federal and state budgets are forcing policymakers to look for ways to prioritize, and basic research "lacks a vocal constituency." Task Force members drew attention to trends that threaten the U.S.'s status as the leader in S&T. Other nations are using the U.S. higher education system as a model, and are working hard to catch up, said Nils Hasselmo, President of the Association of American Universities. The U.S. can expect to see the supply of foreign students to its universities "dwindle," warned Intel CEO Craig Barrett. Diana Hicks, Chair of the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Public Policy, said we are "entering a new regime" in which the U.S. has been surpassed by Europe as the largest producer of new knowledge, and many Asian countries are rapidly catching up. "We don't enjoy [leadership] status by divine right," said National Association of Manufacturers President John Engler, and "it has never been more in doubt whether we will keep that status." It is of note that, although the report highlights threats to America's S&T leadership, the speakers agreed on the importance of global exchange and cooperation in basic science, which Hasselmo called "absolutely essential to our scholarly enterprise."

The fact that U.S. R&D investment in the physical sciences is not keeping up with the GDP is "cause for concern," said APS President Marvin Cohen, and Hasselmo remarked that "the weakening federal commitment to the physical sciences and engineering has not gone unnoticed.... We are here today to ask for a renewed commitment to these ideals." Members of Congress and others must be convinced, Engler added, "that when it comes to setting priorities, research investment has to be at the top of the list." Barrett noted that the long-term nature of the trends made for a "creeping crisis," and was "not something that the American psyche responds well to." Asked where the money should come from, the speakers had a number of personal opinions ranging from reforming the legal system to reducing medical errors to realigning job training programs. "There's a lot of money out there," Wince-Smith said; "it's how it's being used."

The 16-page report, "The Knowledge Economy: Is the United States Losing Its Competitive Edge?," is available at Subtitled "Benchmarks of Our Innovation Future," it lists a series of benchmarks, or "signs of trouble," that show the U.S. losing ground in a number of areas important for science and technology: education, the science and engineering (S&E) workforce, scientific knowledge, innovation, investment, and high-tech economic output. Some of those benchmarks are summarized below:

EDUCATION: Other countries are awarding undergraduate S&E degrees more frequently than the U.S. The U.S.'s share of worldwide undergraduate S&E degrees awarded annually has dropped, and its share of S&E doctoral degrees awarded annually is smaller than those of both Asia and Europe. The proportion of U.S. citizens in S&E graduate studies within the U.S. is declining.

WORKFORCE: Asian students are less likely to study in the U.S. and more likely to pursue PhDs in their own countries than in the past. Since 1980, the number of S&E positions in the U.S. has grown much more rapidly than the number of S&E degrees earned by U.S. citizens. Retirements from the U.S. S&E field are rapidly increasing, as is global competition in the S&E labor market; in the mid-1990s, OECD (Organisation for Economic Development) countries increased their number of S&E research jobs by almost twice the U.S. increase.

KNOWLEDGE CREATION: The U.S output of S&E papers was surpassed by Western Europe in the mid-1990s, and Asia's share is growing rapidly. From 1988-2001, the U.S. increased its number of published S&E articles by 13%, compared to Western Europe's increase of 59%. East Asian countries, although still publishing fewer articles than the U.S., increased their output by 492%. U.S. patent applications from a number of Asian countries combined grew by 759% from 1989-2001. The U.S. share of worldwide citations shrank from 52% of the worldwide total in 1992 to 44% in 2001.

R&D INVESTMENT: In the late 1990s, China, South Korea, and Taiwan increased their gross R&D investments by nearly 140%, while the U.S. investment grew by 34%. Private sector R&D investment in the U.S. now exceeds federal investment, but 71% of private sector investment is for development rather than basic research. As a percentage of GDP, U.S. physical sciences funding "has been in a thirty year decline." Between 1995-2001, China doubled the percentage of its GDP invested in R&D, and intends to increase the percentage devoted to basic research by more than 200% over the next decade. Over the same period, Japanese and European businesses increased their R&D spending, while U.S. businesses decreased theirs.

HIGH-TECH ECONOMY: The U.S. share of worldwide high-tech exports "has been in a 20-year decline." In 2003, China was the largest recipient of foreign direct investment, while investment in U.S. businesses is dropping. Even though the U.S. high-tech industry output doubled between 1989-2001, many Asian countries' high-tech industry grew faster; China's high-tech output "shot up more than 8-fold, from $30 billion to $257 billion."

The report also cites several benchmarks for specific sectors, including nanotechnology, information technology, energy, aerospace, and biotechnology.

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