APS News

Workforce Issues Dominate Policy Briefing

By Ernie Tretkoff

Are enough American students going into science? Can we continue to attract talented foreign scientists to the US? Can American technology companies compete with high tech firms in other countries, where costs are lower?

These were a few of the questions addressed by panelists at a June 24 briefing in Washington, DC, on science and technology globalization, sponsored by the American Chemical Society and the Senate Science and Technology Caucus.

Indicators such as the number of scientific publications and patents, the number of students pursuing science, and support for research and development, suggest that other countries may be catching up to the US in basic science research and technological innovation. A New York Times headline declared in May, "US is losing its dominance in the sciences."

Some policymakers are beginning to pay more attention to the position of US science and technology in the global economy. In introductory remarks at the briefing, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) said, "I do think these issues are extremely important, and they haven't gotten the attention they deserve."

"Our standard of living depends to a great extent on our edge in science and technology," said Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). He recognized the need for funding for basic research, pointing out that federal investment in physical science research has remained essentially flat for a number of years.

Panelist Alan Rapoport, senior science resource analyst at the NSF, reviewed data from the National Science Board's report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2004.

Between 1988 and 2001, the US share of published articles declined from about 40% to about 30%. During that time period, US article output remained essentially flat, while worldwide article output grew by about 40%, driven by increased output in Western Europe, Japan, China, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea.

The US share of papers in Physical Review fell especially dramatically—from 61% in 1983 to 29% last year. The number of papers published by US researchers has remained flat even as investment in research and development has increased, said Rapoport. The NSF is examining reasons for this trend, he said. The share of US patents granted to foreign inventors has hovered between 44% and 48% since 1988.

Thomas Howell of Dewey Ballantine LLP, an expert on international trade matters, discussed the development of high-tech companies, especially in the semi-conductor industry, in foreign countries.

Government policy in countries such as China encourages the building of technology parks modeled on those in Silicon Valley, said Howell. China offers generous tax incentives for high tech firms and their employees, enabling the country to attract some of the best workers from within China and from elsewhere, he said. "People see working for these companies as a way to get rich in a hurry." These tax structures give China an advantage over the US, he said.

Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness, also said that the US faces many challenges in the global economy. The pace of innovation is quickening, technology has enabled businesses to operate anywhere, anytime, and other countries are replicating the US historical advantages, including the collaboration between universities and industry, she said.

Wince-Smith emphasized the importance of innovation in driving productivity, a high standard of living, and job creation, but she expressed several concerns for innovation in the US.

For instance, US companies face environmental regulations and high costs that hinder their competitiveness in the global economy, said Wince-Smith.

Tax structures also give US corporations a comparative disadvantage, and immigration policy keeps out some of the best workers, she said. "We send back many of the talented people we train," she said.


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