US could be losing its edge in science and engineering as China ramps up research efforts

The US appears to be losing its global lead in science and technology according to data released by the US National Science Foundation (NSF). 

The 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators report, produced every two years by NSF, was released on 18 January, and suggests that emerging economies are upping their game when it comes to science and technology.

In 2007, global R&D expenditures totaled more than $1.1 trillion (?700 billion). The US is responsible for about one third of this total, broadly equal to the expenditures of the next four countries combined (Japan, China, Germany and France). However, it is China that ’continues to exhibit the most dramatic growth pattern,’ and threaten the US’s dominance, the indicators warn. 


The US is losing its lead in science and engineering while China ups its game

China’s R&D growth over the past decade has averaged nearly 20 per cent annually, dwarfing that of the US and EU at about 5 per cent.

’The world’s S&T [science and technology] capabilities have expanded quite considerably and have shifted towards developing Asia,’ confirms Rolf Lehming, NSF’s programme director for the indicators. ’In most S&T aspects, the United States maintains its leadership role, but with a gradual erosion in many specific areas,’ he says.

Patrick Clemins, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) director for R&D budget and policy, agrees that the US lead is at risk. ’East Asia is really ramping up,’ he tells Chemistry World.  ’The threat does not seem to be immediate, but the data indicate that we could be losing our edge that we have enjoyed for decades.’ 

Data on publication of scientific papers worldwide highlight some striking differences. 

The average annual growth rate in article production between 1995 and 2007 was high in China at 17 per cent, versus just 0.7 per cent in the US.  

In 2007, research articles in chemistry and physics accounted for just under half of China’s science papers, but in the US accounted for just 17 per cent.

Data on research paper citations offer additional insight. In 1998, the US produced more than 21 per cent of all chemistry-related papers, but by 2008 that figure had slipped to 18 per cent. Furthermore, the US share of the top 1 per cent of chemistry papers cited was over 51 per cent in 1998, but had fallen to 38 per cent by 2008. China has increased its share of these prized papers from 0.3 per cent in 1998 to 8.1 per cent by 2008. 

The downward slide in the US is not unique to chemistry. The region’s share of all science and engineering articles has dropped from 34 per cent in 1998 to less than 29 per cent in 2008.

The new statistics may prompt a US government effort to evaluate the country’s R&D programmes and educational initiatives to determine which are helping it to ’advance scientifically’, AAAS’ Clemins suggests. 

The House of Representatives’ key Science and Technology Committee is already citing the indicators as proof of the need to increase government investment in science, technology, engineering and maths education and training programmes.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe