U.S. Science Is Holding Its Own: Despite Cries of Alarm, We Remain the Global Leader in Innovation


Jul 9, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 9, 2008.

Since the end of the Cold War, many observers have feared the United States is losing its leadership in science and technology. Recent reports bear such disquieting titles as "The Looming Workforce Crisis," "The Gathering Storm" and "The Knowledge Economy: Is the United States Losing Its Competitive Edge?"

Coming from multiple corners — government, academia, the private sector, policy think tanks — these reports draw the same conclusion. The growing strength of other nations in science and technology, coupled with inadequate U.S. investment in research and education, threatens to undercut U.S. leadership in science and technology.

The stakes are high. Science and technology are essential to economic growth, standard of living and national security. But has U.S. science and technology really weakened?

Our research says no: The United States has more than kept pace with its peers by several measures. Research and development expenditures are growing more rapidly in the United States than in Europe and Japan. The growth in researchers in Japan has been considerably lower than that of the United States, while in Europe it is about the same as in the United States.

Although China, India and South Korea are starting to account for a significant portion of the world's science and technology activities, and are showing rapid growth, they still account for a very small share of patents, science publications and citations. The United States, meanwhile, continues to invest in science and technology infrastructure, is creating significant employment in science and engineering, and benefits from the immigration of foreign-born science and engineering students and workers.

Indeed, the United States still accounts for 40 percent of the world's R&D spending and 38 percent of industrialized nations' patented new technology. It produces 35 percent, 49 percent and 63 percent, respectively, of total world publications, citations and highly cited publications. It is home to 75 percent of the world's top 20 universities and employs 70 percent of the world's Nobel Prize winners.

Some observers have pointed to the apparent slow growth of science and engineering degrees as a marker of the deterioration of U.S. science and technology. But growth in these degrees has held at 1.5 percent for several decades and is no different from other fields of study. Moreover, the science and engineering workforce has grown at the fast rate of 4.2 percent a year, supported by the influx of workers from other fields and the immigration of foreign scientists and engineers with advanced degrees.

During this period of supposed slow growth in science and engineering degrees, U.S science and technology not only remained preeminent, it created some 1.9 million science and engineering jobs — and was able to fill them. Unemployment in the field remains low, and salaries are on average 25 percent higher than for workers outside the field with the same level of education.

What many observers fail to realize is that the globalization of science and technology and the rise of this capability in other nations can be economically and scientifically beneficial to the United States. This is no zero-sum game. The use of new technology, whether created in the United States or elsewhere, can result in greater efficiency, economic growth and higher living standards in the United States — as long as the United States maintains the capability to acquire and implement new technologies.

U.S. leadership in science and technology should not be taken for granted. There are warning signs to heed. The persistent underperformance of high school students in math and science is one. The heavy focus of federal research funding on the life sciences at the expense of other sciences is another. And we do not yet fully understand the consequences of an increasing reliance on foreign-born workers in science and engineering.

One thing that would help is better information and analysis. Too much advice today is fragmented or uncritical — and has fed the public misperception that U.S. science and technology is failing when in fact it remains strong.

What the United States needs, at least as a first step, is a new, funded entity to monitor and continuously assess U.S. science and technology and the related workforce. This is not a role that can be filled by ad hoc gatherings of experts, even though their opinions deserve to be heard. A nonpartisan entity would provide an ongoing flow of rigorous assessments of the state of U.S. science and technology, and help policy makers identify and understand adverse trends.

Although this would not put an end to voices sounding the alarm — nor should it — it would provide an essential foundation for informed policy debate and effective decision-making.

Titus Galama is a management scientist and James Hosek is a senior economist at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research and analysis organization.

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