United States still leads in science and engineering, but uncertainties complicate outlook

04/30/04

National Science Board highlights workforce issues in its release of S&E Indicators 2004

ARLINGTON, Va.-The United States remains the world's leading producer of and a net exporter of high-technology products and ranks among the global leaders in research and development (R&D) spending. However, ongoing economic and workforce changes make the outlook for the future uncertain, according to Science and Engineering (S&E) Indicators 2004, a biennial report of the National Science Board (NSB) to the president.

"The United States is in a long-distance race to retain its essential global advantage in S&E human resources and sustain our world leadership in science and technology," said NSB Chair Warren M. Washington. "For many years we have benefited from minimal competition in the global S&E labor market, but attractive and competitive alternatives are now expanding around the world. We must develop more fully our native talent."

S&E Indicators, which this year contains a new chapter with a state-by-state breakdown of two dozen science and technology indicators, is considered the nation's most authoritative source for national and international science and engineering trends in education, the labor force, academia and the global marketplace, as well as nationwide and statewide expenditures for research and development.

In a companion piece to Indicators 2004, the NSB observes in the available statistics an "emerging and critical problem" for the U.S. science and engineering labor force. A contributing factor, paradoxically, is the nation's economic success, which leads to an increasing demand for employees trained in science and engineering fields.

The looming problem lies in current trends that, if left unchecked, show the number of U.S. citizens qualified for science and engineering jobs will be level "at best," the NSB notes. At the same time, the nation may be unable to rely on foreign citizens to fill the gap, either because of limits to entry or because of intense foreign competition for those skills.

Indicators 2004 shows, for example, that the United States now ranks 17th among nations surveyed in the proportion of its 18-24- year-olds earning natural science and engineering degrees. In 1975, the United States ranked third.

Record levels of foreign-born S&E workers have helped make possible the rising U.S. S&E employment in the past several decades. Indicators 2004 highlights U.S. Census data from 2000 showing about 17 percent of bachelor's degree holders, 29 percent of master's degree holders, and 38 percent of doctorate holders employed in S&E occupations are foreign-born.

The latest data in Indicators 2004 paint a more detailed picture. The percentage of foreign-born mathematicians and computer scientists in the U.S workforce, for example, has nearly doubled since 1990. In addition, foreign-born students constituted more than 50 percent of U.S. engineering and computer science graduate students in 2001.

On the other hand, the number of high-skill-related visas issued to students, exchange visitors and others has declined significantly since 2001. These numbers reflect both a drop in applications and higher U.S. State Department refusal rates.

On the economic front, the United States and the G-7 nations continue to account for the lion's share of global R&D expenditures, according to Indicators 2004. The U.S. global high-tech market share held steady in the 1990s, and foreign-owned firms' R&D expenditures in the United States continue to exceed the amount U.S. firms spend overseas.

However, a number of countries are positioned to become more prominent in technology development because of their large, ongoing investments in S&E education and R&D. In the 1990s, China and South Korea increased their high-technology market shares to the point that their combined share has surpassed that of Japan. And U.S. firms spend more R&D dollars in Asia than Asian firms spend in the United States-the only global region where the United States shows such a deficit.

In high-tech exports, the U.S. and Japanese global shares have declined, while the share from other Asian countries, led largely by China and South Korea, has climbed to nearly 30 percent. A growing number of journal articles from East Asia suggests an accompanying increased presence in basic R&D.

Other new trends and findings

S&E Indicators 2004 data show that U.S.-based authors continue to produce the largest share of scientific journal articles, but U.S. article output has flattened since 1992, a trend that has not been observed in other developed countries. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is engaged in an in-depth study of worldwide trends in article production and how and why they may be changing (Chapter 5).

The report features data from a 2001 NSF survey that looks at characteristics of innovative companies and their use of information technology. The results show that companies providing computer-related services were more innovative than computer hardware manufacturers and that process innovation typically generated more revenue than did product innovation (Chapter 6).

Almost all Americans think that science and technology are playing a critical role in national security and meeting future terrorist threats. Similarly, 9 in 10 Americans agreed that scientific literacy is important to help the average citizen understand and deal with terrorism (Chapter 7).

For the first time, the report devotes an entire chapter to a state-by-state breakdown of key S&E indicators. For more details on state indicators, see the related press release (Chapter 8).

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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