Dec 5, 2023 - Science

The U.S. is losing the global science race: STEM worker survey

Scientist working in a lab

A scientist works at BioLabs Pegasus Park in Dallas, Texas, on Sept. 13. Photo: Shelby Tauber/Bloomberg via Getty Images

More than 75% of STEM-related workers say other nations have topped — or will soon surpass — the U.S in science and technology, according to a new report being published Tuesday.

The big picture: As the world's science and tech power centers shift, the U.S., China and other countries are racing to train — and competing to attract — top talent that can drive innovation and the economic growth and national security advantages that often stem from it.

  • The State of Science in America report from the non-partisan Science & Technology Action Committee (STAC) calls for the U.S. to develop a national science and tech strategy and for policymakers to at least double federal funding for scientific research over the next five years.

By the numbers: The report included a survey of nearly 2,000 people in the U.S. working in five sectors that intersect with science and technology — K-12 education, health care, business, military and national security, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

  • Just 8% of respondents said the U.S. is the global leader in science and tech and is expanding its lead, according to the report.
  • In addition, "60% believe that China — not the United States — will be the global leader in science and technology in five years."
  • Nearly 80% of respondents working in the national security sector said China presented a national security threat to the U.S. — compared to 50% of STEM workers.

Between the lines: U.S. and Chinese scientists have historically worked together across scientific fields and have been among each other's top collaborators. But political strains between the U.S. and China and concerns about research security threaten that cooperation.

  • The report calls for U.S. collaboration with China on some key issues, such as climate change, while taking steps to minimize any research security risks.

Zoom in: Across all sectors, respondents identified a "lack of adequate K-12 STEM education" as the top obstacle to fueling science and technology in the U.S. Nearly 70% of respondents said the quality of the country's STEM education system is fair or poor.

  • Respondents said other hurdles included U.S. research being undermined by foreign countries, the scientific research process' red tape, the lack of a national science and technology strategy, and not enough funding for research and development.

Flashback: In 1945, Vannevar Bush, science adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, laid out a framework for supporting science in the U.S. that centered on the federal government funding basic scientific research and training the next generation of scientists and engineers. His strategy involved private industry and then translating those discoveries into applications.

  • But today, private industry "cannot underwrite the level and time-course of targeted research and development or take on the risk or project a sufficient market required to devise applications founded on federally funded discovered knowledge," said Keith Yamamoto, vice chancellor for science policy and strategy at University of California, San Francisco, and a co-chair of STAC.
  • "The U.S. government is just beginning to show signs of recognizing that it must serve a critical catalytic role in advancing newly discovered knowledge into society-serving applications," said Yamamoto, who is president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The sentiment is echoed in the survey: Roughly 40% of respondents said the federal government is primarily responsible for the strength of science and tech in the U.S., followed by private companies (23%), academic institutions (22%) and nonprofit organizations (4%).

  • The majority said the federal government should be spending at least somewhat more money on R&D.
  • Between 2010 and 2019, the share of research and development funded by the federal government decreased from 31% to 21%, according to the report.
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