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Asia's Growing Impact On Research

Latest “Science & Engineering Indicators” shows R&D global trends shifting east

by David J. Hanson
February 8, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 6

Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Natural products research, such as that being done at MerLion Pharmaceuticals, in Singapore, is part of the surge in Asian R&D spending documented in the 2010 “Science & Engineering Indicators.”
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Natural products research, such as that being done at MerLion Pharmaceuticals, in Singapore, is part of the surge in Asian R&D spending documented in the 2010 “Science & Engineering Indicators.”

The world’s science and technology enterprise is changing. Historically, the U.S. has been the leader in many aspects of this enterprise, but with the enormous growth in research capacity and manufacturing in Asia over the past decade, that lead is faltering. For the U.S. to retain its leadership, it must acknowledge this trend and come up with a response.

This may be the main point that can be taken from the latest edition of “Science & Engineering Indicators,” the massive volume of data on all aspects of the science and technology enterprise produced every two years by the National Science Board (NSB), the policy-making body of the National Science Foundation. The indicators report is the most comprehensive source of information on all areas of research and development carried out by universities, industry, the federal government, and the international community.

Although the report includes international science and technology data, much of the indicators report focuses on data relating to U.S. science and technology education and on R&D support and outputs, such as patents and journal publications. The data show how the U.S. is doing both nationally and in comparison with the rest of the world. This year’s edition is more than 550 pages long and includes a smaller digest that highlights the most important trends from the main report. The full report and all the data are available online at

NSF Director Arden L. Bement Jr. praised the latest indicators report at its rollout. The report is “an important guide to our future. The data show not just where we stand, but where we are headed,” he said. “If we can measure the strength of science and engineering in our nation, then we can make them stronger.”

One fact to be mindful of when reading the indicators report is that many of the data are more than a year old. For most of the tables, the most recent data given are from 2008, but for other tables, they’re from previous years. For looking at broad trends, as the report is intended, this is not a problem. But it’s important to note that the impact of the severe recession that hit the U.S. and most other nations in 2008 and 2009 is not reflected in the current report. The next indicators, to be released in January 2012, can be expected to show the impacts of this severe recession.

One way to maintain the U.S.’s global leadership is to strengthen international partnerships, said Louis J. Lanzerotti, chairman of the NSB committee that oversees preparation of the indicators. This will allow the U.S. to gain from the increasing influence of Asian nations such as China, India, Taiwan, and South Korea. “The world is becoming more competitive, but it also allows for more collaboration. We have to be able to respond to these opportunities,” Lanzerotti said.

Data presented in the report certainly show that collaboration is becoming more and more prevalent. For example, in 1988, only 8% of the world’s science and engineering journal articles had authors from multiple countries, but by 2007 the share had grown to 22%. On the basis of an index that corrects for the unequal sizes of countries’ research establishments, the indicators report finds that U.S. collaborations are widespread but are lower than expected. Overall, international research collaboration by European Union scientists has increased measurably in the past 10 years, but the amount of collaboration being done by Asian researchers is far higher than expected.

Credit: NSF
Credit: NSF

Related to collaborations are R&D expenditures by multinational corporations on their overseas affiliates. The report documents a shift in these expenditures, especially in Asia. U.S. corporations, for example, spent 90% of their overseas R&D in Europe, Canada, and Japan in 1995, but by 2006 that percentage dropped to 80%, as U.S. firms spent more in China, South Korea, and Singapore.

China is the biggest factor of change cited in many of the indicators. “We can’t take China for granted,” Bement warned. “Many of the indicators show an acceleration of science and technology in China. And China is making large investments in education and infrastructure. The number of collaborations is dramatically increasing as it becomes the country of choice for collaborations.”

China’s accelerating influence in global technology is documented in several sections of the indicators report. For instance, with respect to the number of doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering fields by U.S. institutions, Chinese Ph.D. students have increased from about 2,500 in 2003 to nearly 4,500 in 2007, the last year for which data are given. In 1987, just 20 years earlier, only about 300 science and engineering doctorates were awarded to Chinese students. An immediate result of this growth is that the number of Chinese researchers has increased dramatically, both in the U.S. and in China. The report notes, for example, that the number of science and engineering doctorates working in China has more than doubled to 1.4 million in 2007 from a decade earlier.

This increased number of researchers in China and other Asian nations has led to more high-technology industry and exports from these nations, the report shows. In the knowledge-intensive industries, such as communications and semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, and scientific instruments, China has become the largest single high-technology exporter in the world, surpassing the U.S. several years ago. In the area of computer manufacturing as a specific example, Chinese exports are accelerating, with no change in this trend in sight.

The report finds that the world’s R&D expenditures have an 11-year doubling path since 1996 and that R&D spending is growing faster than total global economic output. The U.S. is by far the single largest R&D-performing country, spending $369 billion in 2007, which exceeded the Asian region spending of $338 billion and far surpassed the $263 billion spent by the EU. Industry was responsible for 67% of all U.S. R&D expenditures in that year.

But growth rates tell a different story. In the more mature economies, such as the U.S. and the EU, R&D spending has been growing at about 5% annually. But for the Asian economies, which are starting from a much lower baseline, the annual R&D spending rate growth is nearing 10% per year, with China increasing by more than 20% annually.

Piece Of The GDP Pie

Asian countries’ R&D spending as a share of economic output is growing faster than in the U.S. or EU

Asian countries’ R&D spending as a share of economic output is growing faster than in the U.S. or EU

In terms of a nation’s total economic output, the U.S. has set a goal of spending 3% of its gross domestic product on R&D (C&EN, May 4, 2009, page 7). As of 2007, the indicators report notes, U.S. research spending reached 2.6% of GDP. Other nations are increasing their spending at a faster rate, however, with China growing from about 0.6% of GDP in 1996 to 1.5% in 2007. South Korea tops most countries by spending 3.5% of its GDP on research.

The R&D expenditures have a direct impact on the output of research. As a measure of this output, the indicators report details journal publication numbers and patent awards. The U.S. and the EU have long dominated journal article publications, but their combined share has dropped from 69% of articles published in 1995 to 59% in 2008. Asia’s share has risen in that time from 14% to 23%, the report states.

Particularly interesting among publication data in the report is China’s focus on chemistry. The report notes that 24% of China’s science and engineering articles were on chemical research in 2008, almost double the 13% of chemical articles in 1988. The Asian nation is also getting more citations of its chemistry papers as its output rises.

China has greatly increased its share of engineering articles as well, producing 14% of all engineering R&D papers in 2008, up from only about 1% in 1988. At the same time, the U.S. share has dropped from 36% in 1988 to just 20% in 2008. In one of the rare efforts to interpret its statistical findings, the report says that the growing preponderance of engineering articles from developing Asian economies is consistent with the region’s emphasis on developing high-technology manufacturing facilities.

The report also finds that patents based on university-based research grew rapidly in the 1990s but have dropped off slightly or slowed in many areas since then. Some 48% of the university patents awarded in the U.S. are in the areas of chemistry, biotechnology, or pharmaceuticals. And U.S. research publications continue to be the most important citations used in patent applications.

In addition to the data on research, industry, and globalization, the report includes sections on public attitudes toward science and engineering and on state support for science and technology education and business. These indicators show that Americans get most of their information about science and engineering from television and the Internet and that they generally have higher levels of factual knowledge about science than their counterparts in Europe and Asia. The report finds that 68% of Americans believe that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any harmful results, and, in general, they afford high prestige to scientists.

The section on the role states play in science and technology comprises 52 data sets exploring state investment in R&D and economic development. These data cannot be found anywhere else. Tables present performance comparisons among states for mathematics and science education, state teachers’ salaries and school expenditures, numbers of science and technology degrees awarded in each state, and numbers of science and engineering employees in the workforce. The section also includes data on state-by-state industry expenditures on high-technology businesses and on the federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research program.


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