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U.S. science leadership increasingly challenged by AsiaU.S. science leadership increasingly challenged by Asia

China is now decisively the second-largest performer of research and development, while U.S. commitment wavering.

January 20, 2016

6 Min Read
U.S. science leadership increasingly challenged by Asia

According to the latest federal data, the U.S. science and engineering (S&E) enterprise is still the leader globally. In addition, the U.S. invests the most in research and development (R&D), produces the most advanced degrees in S&E and high-impact scientific publications and remains the largest provider of information, financial and business services.

However, Southeast, South and East Asia continue to rapidly ascend in many aspects of S&E, with the region accounting for 40% of global R&D and China being the standout as it continues to strengthen its global S&E capacity, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF).


These and other data on the domestic and global S&E landscape can be found in the National Science Board's (NSB) "Science & Engineering Indicators 2016" report, released Jan. 19.

The indicators report "is a rich source of information on a wide range of measures that let us know how the United States is performing in science and technology," NSF director France Cordova said. "It gives us crucial information on how we compare to other nations in the areas of research and development, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and the development of our workforce. The report also provides state-level comparisons, insights into the representation of women and minorities in science and engineering and insight into what the public thinks about science."

China dominates Asian advances

The 2016 edition notes that China, South Korea and India are investing heavily in R&D and in developing a well-educated workforce skilled in S&E. The report makes it clear that while the U.S. continues to lead in a variety of metrics, it exists in an increasingly multi-polar world for S&E that revolves around the creation and use of knowledge and technology, NSF said.

According to the report, China is now the second-largest performer in R&D, accounting for 20% of global R&D versus the U.S.'s 27%.

Between 2003 and 2013, China ramped up its R&D investments at an average of 19.5% annually, greatly exceeding that of the U.S.

NSF pointed out that developing economies, such as China, that start at a lower base tend to grow much more rapidly than those economies that are already functioning at a high level; nonetheless, China's growth rate in this arena has been remarkable.

China is also playing an increasingly prominent role in knowledge- and technology-intensive industries, including high-tech manufacturing and knowledge-intensive services. These industries account for 29% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and for nearly 40% of U.S. GDP. China ranks second in high-tech manufacturing, where the U.S. maintains a slim lead with a global share of 29% to China's 27%. While China plays a smaller role in commercial knowledge-intensive services (business, financial and information), it has now surpassed Japan to move into third place behind the U.S. and the European Union.

China has also made significant strides in S&E education, which is critical to supporting R&D as well as knowledge and technology-intensive industries. China is the world's number-one producer of undergraduates with S&E degrees. These fields account for 49% of all bachelor degrees awarded in China, compared to 33% of all bachelor degrees awarded in the U.S.

In 2012, students in China earned about 23% of the world's 6 million first university degrees in S&E. Students in the EU earned about 12%, and students in the U.S. accounted for about 9% of these degrees.

"Other countries see how U.S. investments in R&D and higher education have paid off for our country and are working intensively to build their own scientific capabilities. They understand that scientific discovery and human capital fuel knowledge- and technology-intensive industries and a nation's economic health," NSB chair Dan Arvizu said.


U.S. commitment wavering

At the same time China and Korea have continued to increase their R&D investments, the U.S.'s long-standing commitment to federal government-funded R&D is wavering, NSF said. In 2013, government-funded R&D accounted for 27% of total U.S. R&D and was the largest supporter (47%) of all U.S. basic research.

The "Indicators 2016" report shows that federal investment in both academic and business sector R&D has declined in recent years, reflecting the effects of the end of the investments of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, the advent of the Budget Control Act and increased pressure on the discretionary portion of the federal budget.

Inflation-adjusted growth in total U.S. R&D averaged only 0.8% annually over the 2008-13 period, behind the 1.2% annual average for U.S. GDP.

"Decreased federal investment is negatively impacting our nation's research universities," said Kelvin Droegemeier, NSB vice chair and vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma. "Our universities conduct 51% of the nation's basic research and train the next generation of STEM-capable workers. Federal support is essential to developing the new knowledge and human capital that allows the U.S. to innovate and be at the forefront of S&T."

Americans support science

Despite ongoing challenges with federal investment in R&D, Americans have generally favorable views toward science, believing that science creates more opportunity for the next generation, that its benefits outweigh its risks and that the federal government should provide funds for scientific research, NSF said.

Additionally, despite declining public confidence in most U.S. institutions, Americans' confidence in the scientific community remains strong. However, Americans take a dim view of the nation's performance in K-12 STEM education; most believe other countries are doing a better job. About half of Americans worry that science is making life "change too fast," up from about one-third who expressed this concern a decade ago.

Americans remain divided on global warming, an issue that science informs but that is heavily influenced by cultural and other factors also heavily influence. However, a majority of Americans say they would prefer a focus on alternative energy sources over fossil fuel development. Eight out of 10 say they would like to see more emphasis on fuel efficiency standards for vehicles and renewable energy development (Figure).

"Our country's commitment to investing in R&D and in our higher education institutions has and continues to fuel our success," Arvizu said. "Other countries are emulating our model. We can view these advancements as opportunities for our global society to tackle complex problems, such as energy demands, food and water security and disease. At the same time, we need to remain steadfast in our nation's dedication to that which has served us so well: investing in people and their ideas."

The NSB S&E indicators report is the most comprehensive source of high-quality federal data on a wide range of topics that include trends in global R&D investments and knowledge-intensive production, K-12 and post-secondary STEM education, workforce trends and composition, state-level comparisons and public attitudes and understanding of science and related issues.

NSB is the policy-making body for NSF. NSB also advises the President and Congress on S&E policy issues. The board's 24 members are drawn primarily from universities and industry and represent a variety of disciplines.

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