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U.S. dominance waning in science and engineering

R&D investments by China and other nations continue upward trend, report says

by Andrea Widener
January 18, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 4

Other U.S. numbers from the NSB report

16% Percentage of patents related to chemistry and health in 2016, down from 20% in 2000

6.7% R&D intensitya of chemical manufacturing in 2015, compared to 3.9% overall for U.S.

11% Percentage of chemicals sector R&D funding provided by foreign sources, compared to 5% overall for U.S.

5.1% Percentage of chemistry publications out of 409,000 in Scopus in 2016; China, India, Japan, and the EU all had higher percentages of chemistry publications

76% Percentage of students who began high school in 2009 who took chemistry during high school; 98% took biology and 42% took physics.

R&D intensity is spending on R&D as a percentage of overall sales.
Source: Science & Engineering Indicators 2018

The U.S. continues to lead the world in science and engineering, but other nations are making quick progress that threatens U.S. supremacy. Science & Engineering Indicators 2018, released earlier this month by the National Science Board (NSB), shows that the U.S. and Europe no longer dominate international science. Instead, many nations are increasingly competing on equal footing, with China leading a pack of countries that see science as a way to build a modern, successful economy.

“It is very clear that China is placing great emphasis on developing its science and technology capabilities,” says University of Oregon chemist Geraldine Richmond, who chaired the NSB committee that created the report. China’s investment in R&D has averaged increases of 18% a year since 2000, a sustained growth rate that Richmond called “quite remarkable.” The U.S., by contrast, has averaged 4 to 5% growth over that same period, primarily fueled by business investment because U.S. federal government funding for research has remained flat or declined.

China’s investment is not just financial. China now produces more undergraduate science and engineering majors than any other country worldwide. The U.S., by contrast, produces just 10% of worldwide science and engineering majors. The U.S. continues to award more doctoral degrees than any other nation, though 40% of those go to temporary residents. Historically, two-thirds of doctoral degree recipients have stayed in the U.S., but the report shows those from China and India are returning home at increasing rates. After steady increases since 2012, the number of graduate students in the U.S. declined in 2017.

The U.S. has had a hard time recruiting more science students internally, especially from minority groups, points out France Córdova, director of NSF, which is overseen by the NSB. To remain successful, she says, “we will need to broaden the participation of our citizens in STEM.”



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