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Where U.S. science stands

The amount spent on science research and development, using purchasing power parity (ppp) exchange rates for international comparison. Reproduced from National Science Board Science & Engineering Indicators - 2018; Chart: Axios Visuals

China is on track to overtake the United States in expenditures on science research and development — if they haven’t already. According to the National Science Foundation’s congressionally mandated Science & Engineering Indicators report released today, overall spending on research in China has gone up by roughly 18% each year since 2000. The annual increase in the U.S. is just 4%.

Yes, but science is not a zero-sum game, noted chemist Geraldine Richmond, who authored the report that evaluates the state of science in the nation and the world every two years, during a press conference. Even if the U.S. falls behind in scientific leadership, the country's researchers will collaborate with and build off of research done in other countries. The bigger question is what the country's funding priorities should be moving forward.

“Where do we want to lead, in science and technology, and where are we content to participate?” asks Richmond.

The focus: Basic research into new technologies, gathering observations and furthering scientific theories is high-risk and potentially high-payoff. The U.S. has traditionally excelled at it, and according to Matthew Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy program at American Association for the Advancement of Science, such research “lays a foundation of knowledge and skills upon which firms and whole new industries can grow. There’s good evidence that public R&D incentivizes additional follow-on R&D from industry.”

  • That additional follow-up is applied research and experimental development, which China invests heavily in. There, only 5% of funding focuses on basic research, vs. 17% in the U.S. But China has also begun to invest heavily in basic research in fields like nanotech, quantum computing and quantum communication.
  • Says Hourihan: “The continuing commitment of China and other countries to science and innovation should be a wake-up call to the U.S. We’re still the global leader in S&T by many metrics, but our national focus should be to sustain that leadership.”

Here are some other big takeaways from the report:

  • K-12 education: Less than half of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders achieved proficient scores in math and science. In 2015, for the first time, average math scores for 4th, 8th and 12th graders dropped. For the past decade, performance had gradually increased or stayed the same. “It’s a [statistically] significant decline, but there’s no certainty it will continue in the future,” Peter Muhlberger, who authored the chapter, said in a press conference.
  • Publications: China has overtaken the U.S. in terms of number of academic articles published, but U.S. scientists publish highly-cited articles more often. Researchers in Sweden and Switzerland are the most likely to publish highly cited papers.
    • However, scientists are more likely to cite research produced within their country, so some of this may be due to journal and citation bias.
  • Higher ed: China continues to award more bachelor’s degrees in science than any other country, and the number is increasing. But the U.S. produces more doctorate degrees, and remains a top destination for international scientists to further their education. 37% of doctoral students in the U.S. are on temporary visas. An estimated two-thirds of those students will choose to stay in the country long term. That trend may change as an increasing number of doctoral candidates from China and India choose to return home after completing their degrees.
  • Aging labor force: In 1995, the median age of scientists and engineers in the labor force was 41 years. In 2015, it was 43 years. That year, 62% of scientists and engineers between the ages of 60 and 69 were in the labor force.
  • Intellectual property: The U.S. is still leads in terms of the number of patents and revenue from them. It was the first time the report considered that indicator.

Three trends to watch:

  1. Fewer foreign students are eyeing the U.S. for graduate work.
  2. China is attracting more of them.
  3. Foreign-born scientists may be leaving the U.S. because of academic competition and immigration policy.
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