Industry Market Trends

U.S. Science and Engineering Report Card

Feb 17, 2010

The state of science and engineering in the U.S. is strong, yet the nation's lead is shrinking, according to the latest report from the National Science Board. Based on a wide range of data - from R&D spending to higher-education trends in science and engineering fields - the group's Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 report suggests that U.S. dominance of world science and engineering has deteriorated significantly in recent years, due in large part to rapidly increasing capabilities in China and other Asian economies.

Everyone — from tech entrepreneurs and business analysts to news columnists and out-of-work engineers — is sounding the alarm: The United States is losing its innovative edge.

A new report suggests the claim isn't entirely inaccurate.

Last month, the National Science Board (NSB) released its Science and Engineering Indicators 2010, providing a comprehensive view of international science, engineering and technology. The report, produced every two years by the NSB — the governing body for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NSF's Division of Science Resources Statistics — analyzes data ranging from research and development (R&D) spending to higher-education trends in science and engineering fields.

The latest edition indicates that while the state of U.S. science and engineering is strong, "U.S. dominance has eroded significantly" in recent years, due in large part to rapidly increasing capabilities among Asian nations, particularly China, Kei Koizumi, assistant director for federal R&D in President Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in an announcement of the findings.

"The data begin to tell a worrisome story," Koizumi said.

The NSB's key findings, highlighted below, shed light on America's science and engineering position in the global economy.

R&D — Between 1996 and 2007, North America's share of world R&D activity dropped from 40 percent to 35 percent. Meanwhile, the European Union's (EU) share decreased from 31 percent to 28 percent. The Asia-Pacific region's share rose from 24 percent to 31 percent during the same period, "even with Japan's comparatively low growth." The share of the rest of the world increased from 5 percent to 6 percent. The annual growth of R&D expenditures in the U.S., at just over 5 percent, is low compared to America's Asian counterparts; in India, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and China, R&D budgets have increased up to four times that of the U.S. growth rate. American multinationals are shifting their overseas R&D from Europe to emerging Asian markets, whose share grew from 5 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2006.

NS&E Higher Education — Many Western countries are concerned about lagging student interest in studying natural sciences or engineering (NS&E), fields that convey technical skills and learning considered essential for knowledge-intensive economies. In the developing world, the number of first university NS&E degrees (broadly comparable to a U.S. baccalaureate) is rising, led by large increases in China, from about 239,000 in 1998 to 807,000 in 2006. NS&E degrees earned by Japanese and South Korean students combined in 2006 (about 235,000) approximated the number earned by U.S. students during that year, even though the U.S. population was considerably larger (300 million versus 175 million). The natural sciences include physical, biological, earth, atmospheric, ocean, agricultural and computer sciences as well as mathematics.

China_United_States_engineering_natural_sciences_PhD_degrees.pngNS&E Doctorates Earned — China's domestically earned NS&E doctorates have shot up more than tenfold since the early 1990s, to about 21,000 in 2006, approaching the number awarded in the U.S. Most of the post-2002 increase in U.S. NS&E doctorates reflects degrees awarded to temporary and permanent visa holders, who in 2007 earned about 11,600 of 22,500 NS&E doctorates in the U.S. Foreign nationals have earned more than half of U.S. NS&E doctorates since 2006, 31 percent of whom are from East Asia, mostly from China. (Image credit: NSB, SEI 2010)

Engineering Doctorates and Visas — The engineering numbers are more concentrated. The share of U.S. engineering doctorates awarded to temporary and permanent visa holders rose from 51 percent in 1999 to 68 percent in 2007. Nearly three-quarters of these foreign Ph.D. recipients were from East Asia or India. While many of these individuals, especially those on temporary visas, will leave the U.S. after earning their doctorates, past trends suggest a large proportion will stay; 60 percent of temporary visa holders who had earned a U.S. science and engineering Ph.D. in 1997 were gainfully employed in the U.S in 2007, the highest 10-year stay rate ever observed.

Research Output — The number of research articles published in a set of international, peer-reviewed journals has grown from about 460,000 in 1988 to an estimated 760,000 in 2008. However, between 1995 and 2008, the U.S. and E.U.'s combined share of world scholarly articles dropped from 69 percent to 59 percent, while Asia's expanded from 14 percent to 23 percent. Over the past two decades, the number of engineering research articles in the U.S. has grown by less than 2 percent annually; likewise in Japan. Growth in the EU: about 4.4 percent. Meanwhile, China's output of engineering articles grew by close to 16 percent annually.

Patent Protection Filings — U.S. patents awarded to foreign inventors offer a broad indication of the distribution of inventive activity around the world. While inventors in the U.S. the EU and Japan produce almost all of these patents, and U.S. patenting by Chinese and Indian inventors remains modest, the number of patents earned by Asian inventors is on the rise, driven by activity in Taiwan and South Korea. From 1995 and 2008, the share of patents granted to U.S.-based inventions by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has shrunk from 55 percent to 49 percent. In 1997, 34 percent of high-value patents had U.S. inventors, yet this figure slipped to 30 percent by 2006.

In a 2007 special report, New Scientist explained that contemporary China "is a nation led by technocrats. The current generation of leaders is made up mostly of graduates from some of China's leading universities, typically trained in science and engineering."

"For those in the West," New Scientist said, "where lawyers dominate the political establishment, China provides an intriguing contrast."


Science and Engineering Indicators (2010)

National Science Board, Jan. 15, 2010

National Science Board Releases Science and Engineering Indicators 2010

National Science Board, Jan. 15, 2010

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010: A Report Card for U.S. Science, Engineering, and Technology

by Kei Koizumi

The White House Blog, Jan. 18, 2010

China Special: Engineers Rule, OK?

by Richard P. Suttmeier

New Scientist, Nov. 7, 2007