The United States was once the dominant, global leader in science and engineering, but that ranking has dropped as other countries invest in research and development, according to a new report.
And although there are more women and minorities involved in the science and engineering workforce than before, they are still underrepresented in the US.
The findings were presented this week in the State of US Science and Engineering 2020 report, compiled and published by the National Science Board and the National Science Foundation. The report is published every two years and submitted to Congress.
“Our latest report shows the continued spread of [science and engineering] capacity across the globe, which is good for humanity because science is not a zero-sum game,” said Diane Souvaine, National Science Board chair, in a statement. “However, it also means that where once the US was the uncontested leader in S&E, we now are playing a less-dominant role in many areas.”
Science and engineering are closely connected to the US economy and national security. But the findings present a mixed bag. The US has spent more on science research and development than any other country, reaching $548 billion in 2017. Yet it’s falling behind as other countries focus on increasing their efforts.
Business has been the largest investor in US research and development, with much of the funding directed toward experimental development. Meanwhile, the federal government has decreased funding since 2000. For example, the government funded 38%, or $76 billion, of US research in 2017. That same year, the business sector contributed 43%, or $85 billion.
A decrease in federal funding particularly affects research efforts in higher education.
“Federal support of basic research drives innovation. Only the federal government can make a strategic, long-term commitment to creating new knowledge that [could] to lead to new or improved technologies, goods or services,” said Julia Phillips, chair of the National Science Board’s science and engineering policy committee. “Basic research is the ‘seed corn’ of our US S&E enterprise, a global competitive advantage, and the starting point for much of our GDP growth since World War II.”
The US global share of research and development has declined to 25%, according to the report. Asian countries are increasing their global share by focusing on rapid growth efforts in comparison to modest efforts by the US. China has contributed nearly a third of the total growth in global research and development since 2000. The report projects that China will be the likely leader in that area.
“In 2017, the economies of East-Southeast and South Asia collectively accounted for 42% of global R&D [research and development] expenditures, higher than the United States (25%) and the EU (20%),” according to the report.
The US still leads in its amount of science and engineering doctorate-level degree awards and research publications. Publications from the US and Europe lead in the biomedical field, but China was the leader in engineering articles, producing twice as many as the US.
The rapid development of science and engineering capabilities in other countries causes US spending and efforts in that subject to appear stale, despite its growth.
“The United States has seen its relative share of global S&T [science and technology] activity flatten or shrink, even as its absolute activity levels kept rising,” the authors wrote in the report. “As more countries around the world develop R&D and human capital infrastructure to sustain and compete in a knowledge-oriented economy, the United States is playing a less dominant role in many areas of S&E [science and engineering] activity.”
“Women, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians or Alaska Natives are underrepresented in the US [science and engineering] workforce compared to their presence in the overall population, even though their participation in absolute numbers has grown,” according to the report.
While women account for about half of the college-educated workforce, women only account for 29% of science and engineering jobs. That rose from 26% in 2003. By comparison, underrepresented minorities hold 13.3% of those jobs.
Despite efforts to increase STEM, or a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, in US schools, average math scores have remained flat over the last decade.
“In international mathematics and science assessments, US eighth grade students rank in the middle of advanced economies,” the authors of the report wrote.
At the higher education level, the US still leads in awarding the most science and engineering doctorate degrees.
But the enrollment of foreign students in US universities has declined the last four years. International students, who receive 34% of doctorates in science and engineering from US universities, tend to stay and contribute to the workforce and research and development.
“Research is now a truly global enterprise. Opportunities are everywhere and humanity’s collective knowledge is growing exponentially,” Souvaine said. “To remain a leader, we need to tap into our American ‘can do’ spirit and recommit to strong partnerships among government, universities and industry that have been the hallmarks of our success. I believe we should react with excitement, not fear, because we are well positioned to compete, collaborate and thrive.”
Going forward, the research will be broken down into a series of streamlined report in order to be more timely and better meet the needs of policymakers and industry leaders, said Arthur Lupia, assistant director of the National Science Foundation’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate.