Volume 86 Issue 6 | pp. 43-45
Issue Date: February 11, 2008

Research Trends

"Science & Engineering Indicators" report shows that basic research is hurting
Department: Government & Policy
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In The Lab
Cutbacks in basic research by industry are among troublesome trends noted in the latest "Science & Engineering Indicators" report.
Credit: iStockphoto
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In The Lab
Cutbacks in basic research by industry are among troublesome trends noted in the latest "Science & Engineering Indicators" report.
Credit: iStockphoto

THE LATEST EDITION of the National Science Foundation's compilation of data on the health of science and technology in the U.S. shows that the enterprise is basically strong and vigorous. But signs of weakness are beginning to show through, primarily in the nation's support for basic research.

The biannual "Science & Engineering Indicators" report is a monumental wealth of information on all aspects of the technology enterprise in the U.S. and around the world. Prepared by the National Science Board (NSB), which is NSF's policy-setting body, the report is the most comprehensive source of information on research and development conducted by universities, industry, the federal government, and the international community. This year's edition is almost 600 pages long and has been issued with a short companion analysis highlighting areas of importance and a CD containing an appendix of additional data tables.

Broken up into five major sections, the report is filled with information on trends in important science and technology areas. On everything from the funding and performance of basic research to workforce numbers and dynamics to the public's knowledge of science to the activity in individual states, the report provides data that indicate where these areas are heading.

Although the report provides a wealth of data, there are some problems with it. For instance, it provides a look at the trends in science and technology, but stops short of presenting any broad analysis or points of view.

Another problem is that because the report paints this picture of the science and technology landscape with a very broad brush, it can be frustrating in its lack of distinctions. For example, when discussing federal support for R&D, the indicators lump all aspects of this multifaceted area together. Therefore, it indicates that gross national support for R&D is increasing, even though most of the increase in recent years has gone toward development work at the Department of Defense, while basic research funding has been shrinking. And when discussing workforce and education data, the numbers are so broadly inclusive that it can't be seen, for example, whether a rise in the number of psychologists is masking a drop in mathematicians. The appendix tables that accompany the indicators report, however, do divide some of the data in these broad categories into many subdivisions and are more useful in trying to parse out specific information.

Also, the report uses the best data available at the time for each indicator; some data are very recent, but some are several years old. This leads to situations where a table using 2006 data is adjacent to one that contains data only up to 2003. This inconsistency makes direct comparisons difficult.

But, these issues aside, the indicators show some interesting trends and raise some important questions.

"These indicators come at an important time," according to NSB Chairman Steven C. Beering, president emeritus of Purdue University. "The confluence of a range of indicators raises key questions about the future of U.S. high-technology industry competitiveness in international markets and the implications for highly skilled jobs at home."

Many of these questions arise because of the increasing globalization of science and engineering endeavors, led by the electronics, or high technology, industries. For example, Beering notes that the data show the U.S. is holding its own compared with the rest of the world when it comes to high-technology manufacturing and inventions, but is falling behind Asian nations, especially China and Malaysia, in areas such as manufactured imports and exports.

A STRONG THEME in the indicators report is the relationship between a successful national economy and the nation's support of R&D. The report makes this connection in many ways. For example, the U.S. total R&D investment in 2006 was $340 billion, more than that of any other single nation—and more than the investment of the next seven largest industrialized nations combined, as it has for many years.

The data also show that the U.S., compared with other nations, devotes a relatively high percentage of its gross domestic product to R&D: 2.6% in 2006. NSB considers this a key indicator for future growth and innovation. Significant spending on R&D, the report states, enables the nation to continue doing well in a rapidly changing world economy because it can maintain a large, mature, and diversified science and technology system.

Other report data linking the nation's economy and innovation include the fact that productivity per employee in the U.S. is higher than in other nations, and that U.S. companies receive considerable revenue from licensing intellectual property. The report also states that the U.S. maintains a leading position in the marketing of knowledge-intensive industries, such as electronics and pharmaceuticals, which are among key contributors to economic growth around the world.

A concurrent thread in the indicators report is that national investment in science and engineering education pays great dividends in today's knowledge-based world economy. Among other data, the report states that the U.S. allocates a larger share of its higher education R&D investment to the natural sciences than most other members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation & Development. One outcome of this is that the U.S. science and engineering workforce's growth rate—3.6% between 1990 and 2000—has been faster than the 1.1% rate for the full U.S. workforce during that period. This growth signifies a workforce that has a high capacity for innovation, the report states.

The diversity and strength of the U.S. economy is also behind data showing that more foreign workers are coming here, either for additional training or for jobs. The data show that the issuance of U.S. high-skill-related visas to foreigners in 2006 rose to record levels despite a drop after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The number of foreign student visas had also risen to new heights by the end of 2006.

But changes in the global economy may erode the U.S. lead in some of these areas. As technical knowledge becomes more central to the economic activity in both established and developing economies, the NSB report states, educational and technical sophistication in the workforces of other nations has grown. This growth has geographically shifted where R&D is performed toward Asian nations, especially China and India.

It is the advent of rising international competition coupled with the decline in basic research support in the U.S. that concerns the science board. In its companion analytical report, NSB makes the case for building a stronger foundation of U.S. competitiveness in the global economy and provides government policy makers with some broad recommendations. Improvement needs to begin, NSB says, with more basic research.

NSB points out that there has been a decline in national support for research at both the industry and the federal government levels. The government's backing is especially important, as it funded 59% of all the basic research performed in the U.S. in 2006, the report says. But in 2004 and 2005, federal obligations for basic research declined in inflation-adjusted spending for the first time since 1982.

THE SITUATION in private industry is more complicated. The NSB analysis notes that industry support for basic research performed at universities is declining; industry now funds just 17% of all U.S. basic research in 2006 compared with 25% 10 years earlier. NSB says it is concerned about the decline in this research support because of its impact on contributions to knowledge and to future innovation.

In addition, the report presents data that show there was a 30% decline between 1995 and 2005 in the number of basic research papers authored by industrial scientists written for peer-reviewed journals. In the field of physics, the drop was 70%. "These trends are especially alarming in light of the growing importance of knowledge-based industries in the global economy," the report states.

It also notes a slight drop in the percentage of patents being filed by U.S. inventors, but apparently no resultant decrease in U.S. international competitiveness has been observed yet. The drop in patents, NSB says, is another result of the globalization of the research community, as evidenced particularly by a rise in patents from Asia.

NSB's recommendations focus heavily on strengthening basic research in the U.S. "Based on past experience, basic research can be expected to be a major driver in the future for innovations that result in new industries and new jobs, and that will enhance the nation's global competitiveness," the report states. It recommends that the federal government take action to bolster the level of funding for, and the transformational nature of, basic research.

But competitiveness does not depend on the government's actions alone. Trends in the data show that there needs to be more industry-based research. The board is concerned that less basic research by companies will lead to "a decline in the level of interactions between industry and academic research and in teaching." The fact that fewer industry-authored papers appear in peer-reviewed journals is also seen as isolating innovation in the industrial sector. In addition, NSB notes, industry results will not be available to beneficially influence research by other scientists.

NSB recommends that policy makers in industry and government, as well as those in the academic sector and professional organizations, take action to encourage greater intellectual interchange between industry and academia. And it urges industry researchers to increase their participation as authors and reviewers for peer-reviewed publications.

The potential impacts of negative trends in research support on the economy are troubling, the NSB analysis concludes. It maintains that both industry and government bear a responsibility for the health of science and technology in the U.S. as the global economy changes. "As a nation, we must renew our strong commitment to R&D to ensure our continued preeminence in global science and technology," NSB says.

 
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