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Physical Chemistry

Staying successful

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
November 20, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 46

About a month ago C&EN published a story that described how the strong chemistry job market in China is increasingly making the prospect of graduate or postgraduate positions in the U.S. less attractive for Chinese scientists.

Greater investment in the sciences in China in recent years has translated to improved facilities and more—and more appealing—opportunities there. At the same time, the U.S. market is becoming more difficult for researchers from China because many universities are facing funding cuts and hence cannot offer financial support for as many positions as in the past.

A study released recently by the Institute of International Education explores a similar trend in international enrollment in U.S. colleges, compares the shifts across all disciplines, and looks at numbers beyond just China to provide a global outlook.

The study reports that international enrollment at U.S. colleges is down for the first time in the 12 years that the data have been collected. Indeed, for the 2016–17 academic year, enrollment of international students fell about 3.3%. In the autumn semester the situation looked worse, with a 6.9% decrease in new international enrollments.

The study attributes this decline to greater prospects for people in their countries and a challenging social and political climate in the U.S. Whatever the reasons, it is interesting to note that this trend is worst felt by the mid- and lower-tier universities, especially those without Ph.D. programs. Universities in the top tiers are less affected than average and continue to attract talent.

It is also worth pointing out that this decline should not be alarming for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines at this point because the percentage is an average across all disciplines. When you dig into the different areas, physical and life sciences still fare quite well, with a modest but positive increase of 1.9%. When taken in combination with the C&EN article, we can agree that the net flow of talent is still favorable, but it is a warning sign that unless the government takes action, the decline is likely to continue and ultimately impair the U.S.’s ability to remain diverse, competitive, and innovative in the global STEM market.

While we don’t need to go into crisis mode regarding the future of the physical and life sciences—for now—we can’t deny that other parts of the world, like China, are really challenging the status quo in terms of leadership in research and innovation. China’s investment in infrastructure alone has been phenomenal. Only a week ago, Nature reported that the China Spallation Neutron Source (CSNS), a $331 million next-generation neutron generator in Dongguan, is getting ready to start experiments. CSNS will have capacity for 20 beam lines, although it looks like only three are going to be available initially. CSNS officials expect that the instruments will be calibrated and ready for experiments before the end of 2017.

Similar facilities exist in the U.K., Japan, the U.S., and Switzerland, and one is under construction in Sweden, but this new neutron generator plus other investment means that China will be at the forefront globally for doing experiments in materials science and other fields.

Someone told me a few years ago that in business, remaining still is not equivalent to perpetuating the status quo: You don’t just stay successful. It’s kind of obvious but easy to forget that while you do nothing, your market share shrinks because your competitors are growing theirs.

Pay heed, U.S. This is not a crisis yet, but the writing is on the wall.

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


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