IT SEEMS that the United States’ once uncontested world leadership in science and engineering is sliding. For decades, the United States weaves its global might around its science and technology prowess, but other nations seem to be closing the gap.
According to findings presented in the state of US Science and Engineering 2020 Report, compiled and published by the National Science Board and the National Science Foundation, which is published every two years and submitted to Congress, “our latest report shows the continued spread of [science and engineering] capacity across the globe, which is good for humanity because science is not a zero-sum game,” said Diane Souvaine, National Science Board chair, in a statement.
“However, it also means that where once the US was the uncontested leader in S&E, we now are playing a less-dominant role in many areas.”
According to the report, the US global share of research and development has declined to 25 per cent, while Asian countries are increasing their global share by focusing on rapid growth efforts in comparison to modest efforts by the US. China has contributed nearly a third of the total growth in global research and development since 2000. It further projects that China will be the likely leader in that area.
Business has been the largest investor in US research and development, with much of the funding directed toward experimental development. Meanwhile, the federal government has decreased funding since 2000. The government funded 38 per cent or $76 billion, of US research in 2017. That same year, the business sector contributed 43 per cent, or $85 billion.
The effect of decrease in federal funding particularly affects research efforts in higher education. “Federal support of basic research drives innovation. Only the federal government can make a strategic, long-term commitment to creating new knowledge that [could] lead to new or improved technologies, goods or services,” said Julia Phillips, chair of the National Science Board’s science and engineering policy committee.
“Basic research is the ‘seed corn’ of our US S&E enterprise, a global competitive advantage, and the starting point for much of our GDP growth since World War II.”
“In international mathematics and science assessments, US eighth grade students rank in the middle of advanced economies,” the authors of the report wrote.
At the higher education level, the US still leads in awarding the most science and engineering doctorate degrees.
But the enrollment of foreign students in US universities has declined the last four years. International students, who receive 34 per cent of doctorates in science and engineering from US universities, tend to stay and contribute to the workforce and research and development.