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Pursuing Scientific Excellence

by Rudy M. Baum
June 14, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 24

Is U.S. Science losing its competitive edge? The New York Times addressed this question a few weeks ago in a long, page-one article by veteran science correspondent William J. Broad. Drawing from a number of sources, Broad concluded that many nations, particularly in Western Europe and Asia, are catching up with and in some cases even surpassing the U.S. in various measures of scientific and technological accomplishment. The U.S. no longer dominates the world as it once did in the number of scientific papers published, patents awarded, or Ph.D.s conferred.

C&EN has been covering these trends for many years. In this week’s issue, Editor-at-Large Michael Heylin looks in some depth at one component of this question, the nation of origin of scientific papers over the past 15 years (see page 38). He finds that, while the long-standing scientific dominance of the U.S. persists, other areas of the world are closing the gap.

Heylin analyzed data on scientific publishing from the National Science Foundation, Chemical Abstracts Service, and the American Chemical Society’s journal publishing operations. For all three data sets, a paper is assigned to a nation by where the work was done, not by the nationality of the scientist or scientists who performed it.

While the numbers from NSF and CAS differ in absolute terms, they reveal similar patterns of relative growth. These are among the findings Heylin turned up:

◾ Growth in U.S. scientific publication has been flat in recent years, despite increases in research funding and personnel.

◾ The U.S.’s share of scientific papers, according to NSF, fell from 38.1% of the total in 1988 to 30.9% in 2001, with the share from Western Europe rising from 30.9% to 35.3% and the share from Asia up from 11.1% to 17.5% for the same period; CAS data show a similar trend.

◾ The U.S. share of papers published in ACS journals fell from 64% of the total in 1988 to 43% in 2001 and 40% in 2003.

As measured by CAS, the total number of scientific papers climbed from 390,000 in 1988 to 607,000 in 2001. The U.S. accounted for 33,000, or about 15%, of the increase. Strikingly, the increase for China was from 13,700 papers in 1988 to 59,300 in 2001, 21% of the increase. This gain vaulted China from seventh to third in the world ranking.

There is much to ponder in the numbers unearthed by Heylin. It would be unseemly to suggest that increasing scientific and technological sophistication in nations around the world is somehow a negative development. Far from it. Increasing the store of scientific knowledge is one of humanity’s loftiest pursuits, and no nation has a particular claim on it.

The numbers, coupled with a variety of developments reported in the pages of C&EN and conversations I have had with chemists and business leaders, give me pause, however. There can be no question that U.S. scientific and technological prowess has been a major component in the nation’s economic growth through the 20th century. As the U.S. surrenders its dominant position in science to other nations, it runs the real risk of undermining its economic future as well.

China is a particularly interesting case. China’s commitment to advancing science and technology is clear from the information developed by Heylin and many other indicators. China’s leaders clearly believe that vigorous R&D efforts are key to the nation’s economic development, and the leaders are pouring resources into advanced laboratories and science education.

We recently reported that Rohm and Haas will build a major research and technical center in Shanghai.When the center is fully occupied, it will employ about 225. Other chemical companies also have plans to open R&D centers in China. Part of their motivation is clearly that China is where the scientific talent is. This point is also made in a profile of WuXi PharmaTech, a contract research firm in Shanghai that is doing work for several multinational drug companies (see page 24).

The bottom line here isn’t new. Excellence in science is critical to the nation’s future, and as a nation, we must redouble our commitment to maintaining that excellence. Unfortunately, that is easier to state than to carry out.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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