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Mixed Picture Emerges from Science and Engineering Indicators

The National Science Board’s recently released Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 presents a mixed picture of the health of US research and development, with various statistics showing both areas of concern and areas where US science and technology is strong. The report, which contains hundreds of pages of data, was released in January.

A short companion report to the policy-neutral Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 notes that some of the indicators show that the US is in danger of losing its dominance in science and engineering. The companion report, titled “Research and Development: Essential Foundation for U.S. Competitiveness in a Global Economy,” says that “U.S. industry and the Federal Government are the primary pillars of financial support for the U.S. research and development (R&D) enterprise. The National Science Board observes with concern the indicators of stagnation, and even decline in some discipline areas, in support for U.S. R&D, and especially basic research, by these two essential patrons and participants.”  

The federal government is the second largest source of total research and development funding, but it is the primary source of funding for basic research (industry primarily funds development). While federal spending on R&D continues to increase overall, spending on academic R&D, mostly basic research, has been declining for three years in a row. This is the first time this has happened since 1982, the report points out.

In recent years industry in the US has shifted its focus away from basic research. The number of articles published in peer-reviewed journals by industry authors declined by 30% from 1995 to 2005. In physics, publications by industry authors dropped dramatically, from nearly 1000 in 1988 to 300 in 2005. The US also declined in its share of “highly influential” physics papers, dropping from first to second rank in physics from 1992 to 2003, the NSB study found.  

The report also pointed to some positive trends. For instance, the US leads the world in its share of global R&D expenditures. Total R&D spending in the US in 2006 was $293 billion (in 2000 constant dollars), more than any other nation. High tech manufacturing revenue in the US is also strong, and total R&D spending is continuing to increase.  

The US continues to lead the world in “triadic” patent filings (filings in the world’s three largest markets–the US, the EU, and Japan), with nearly 20,000 applications in 2003. The share of US patent applications from US-based inventors has decreased slightly, to 53% in 2005 from 55% in 1996, mostly due to an increase in Asian patents.  

In addition, public attitudes towards science are generally positive, the study found. There is broad support for federal funding of basic research; 87% of those surveyed believe the government should fund basic research, and 41%, the highest ever, think that the government spends too little on basic research. The science and engineering workforce in the US has been growing, as has the number of science and engineering degrees awarded by US colleges and universities, the study found.

The National Science Board offered the following recommendations:

1. The Federal Government should take action to enhance the level of funding for, and the transformational nature of, basic research.

2. Industry, government, the academic sector, and professional organizations should take action to encourage greater intellectual interchange between industry and academia. Industry researchers should also be encouraged to participate as authors and reviewers for articles in open, peer-reviewed publications.

3. New data are critically needed to track the implications for the U.S. economy of the globalization of manufacturing and services in high technology industries, and this need should be addressed expeditiously by relevant Federal agencies.

Gray arrow Read  Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 report.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
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