APS News

US Could Soon Be Playing Second Fiddle in Areas of Science and Technology

By Ernie Tretkoff

The US is in danger of losing its leadership role in science and innovation, according to a group of leaders in academia and industry who released a report on February 16 at a press conference in Washington, DC.

The report was issued by the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, a group that includes the APS and 13 other organizations associated with business and academia.

Titled "The Knowledge Economy: Is the United States Losing its Competitive Edge?," the report presents a set of benchmarks in several key areas meant to help policymakers assess US high-tech competitiveness. In each of the six key areas—education, workforce, knowledge creation, research and development investment, the high tech economy, and specific high tech sectors-statistics show that the US is in danger of falling behind other countries.

The Task Force made these announcements shortly after President Bush released his FY06 budget proposal, which proposed cuts in many areas of research and development while leaving the overall budget for R&D nearly flat. The Task Force called for increasing federal spending on basic research in the physical sciences and engineering.

According to the report, the fastest growing economies are gaining on the US in R&D investment. In fact, as a percentage of GDP, funding for physical science research in the US has been in decline for 30 years. In contrast, between 1995 and 2002, China doubled the percentage of its GDP invested in research and development, and intends to continue to increase spending. Furthermore, since the 1980's, in the US there has been a shift in the source of funding from government to private funding, with the private sector now providing more than 68 % of R&D funds. Private funding tends to cycle with business patterns and focus on short-term results rather than basic research.

In a written statement about those trends, Burton Richter of SLAC said, "The knowledge creation that leads to publications, patents, and products begins with R&D. In an environment of heightened global competitiveness, the federal government must provide the investment capital for long term research."

"It is easy to ignore long-term needs because of pressures from short-term needs. We have been able to get away with it for decades because we were so far ahead of the rest of the world. But the rest of the world is rapidly catching up. Only strong federal investment can ensure the healthy research enterprise that is essential to our innovation future," said Richter.

The Task Force pointed out several other troubling trends:

  1. The number of science and engineering positions in the US has grown at almost five times the rate of the civilian workforce as a whole, but the number of science and engineering degrees earned by US citizens is growing at a much smaller rate. Unless more domestic college students choose to pursue degrees in science, there is likely to be a major shortage in the science and engineering labor market, according to the Task Force.
     
  2. The US share of science and engineering papers published worldwide declined from 38% in 1988 to 31% in 2001. The US share of worldwide citations is also shrinking. US patent applications from Asian countries grew by 759% from 1989 to 2001, while patent applications from the US during the same period grew only 116%.
     
  3. The proportion of US citizens in science and engineering graduate studies within the US is declining, and foreign students outnumber American students at US graduate institutions. From 1994 to 2001, graduate science and engineering enrollment in the US declined by 10% for US citizens but increased by 25% for foreign-born students. In 2001, about 57% of all science and engineering postdoctoral positions were held by foreigners.
     
  4. The US share of worldwide high-tech exports has been in a 20-year decline. And even while the US high tech industry grew during the 1990s, the high-tech industry in many Asian countries grew even faster.

At the press conference Nils Hasselmo, President of the Association of American Universities, said, "The US may be about to experience a significant decline in the number of scientists and engineers it will have available to maintain and further strengthen its innovative capacity. It's bad news for American universities and industry. And it's bad news for our nation's future economic and national security. If the federal government doesn't recommit itself to funding of research in these areas, we will lose students, and our nation will surely suffer."

John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers and former governor of Michigan, added, "We are and remain the world leader in innovation, but we do not enjoy that status by divine right, and we cannot assume that we are safely ahead of the world. The only way the US can continue to create high-wage, high-value-added jobs is to innovate faster than the rest of the world. Federally funded, peer reviewed, and patented scientific advances are essential to innovation. If we shortchange research we do so at our peril."

The Task Force is calling on the federal government to increase the budgets of key research agencies, including the NSF, the DOE, and the DOD, to total one percent of US GDP. The panel declined to specify what other government spending could be cut in order to increase spending on scientific research. "We're not putting the budget together, but this has to be a priority," said Engler.

Asked what has changed since last year, when the Task Force held a similar press conference, Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel Corporation replied, "The challenge we're facing is not a short-term crisis. It happens gradually over a period of time. We have to continue to get the message out."

In addition to the APS, the current members of the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation include the American Chemical Society, the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America (ASTRA), the Computer Systems Policy Project, the Council on Competitiveness, Intel Corporation, Hewlett Packard, IBM, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Science Coalition, the Semiconductor Industry Association, and Texas Instruments.

The full report can be found at www.futureofinnovation.org.


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