There is a growing number of articles in the popular press that are picking up on the notion the U.S. is steadily losing its once dominating lead in science and technology. Clearly numerous other nations have begun massive expansions of their own R&D budgets, most notably Asian countries such as China, India, and, for some time now, Japan.
Some indicators of our diminishing lead include a large and growing dependence on foreign graduate students to keep our research programs (especially university) running, an increasing percentage (nearly half) of U.S. patents going to foreigners, a smaller percentage of scientific publications (e.g. only 29% of articles in Physical Review in 2003, down from a peak of 61% in 1983), and fewer Nobel Prizes going to Americans in the sciences (only half since the late 1990s). There is also the usual concern about the performance of American students on international math and science exams, where we have fallen behind numerous countries. The U.S. will lose its lead in areas like high energy physics in two years, when the Europeans commission the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva (and after we scrapped the Superconducting Supercollider back in the early 1990s), and we have lost our lead in some medical research areas such as stem-cell research. While we have tens of thousands high school students participate in science fairs and science competitions, China has 3 million doing the same.
Our superpower status was developed largely on the back of our science/technology/engineering dominance. The U.S. economy has been dependent on technology for the amazing gains in productivity in manufacturing, agriculture, and energy sectors. Clearly, our military dominance is based almost entirely on our technology lead. But, as our research universities, still the envy of the world, have educated many in the rest of the world, larger percentages of foreign students have been taking their knowledge and experience back to their home countries. Again, Asian students are leading the way.
One question I have been interested in deals with whether we have a shortage of American students going into science, math, and engineering. While that has been largely assumed and discussed by academics and politicians, I came across two articles that present quantitative arguments that no such shortage exists. The arguments are based on job markets for engineers and scientists. For example, Richard Ellis and George McClure point out problems with The National Science Board’s conclusions in 2003 about the decline of the U.S. lead in science and engineering. One point is that there is a “glut” of PhDs in America, where typically hundreds of applicants try to gain small numbers of tenure-track positions in university science departments. They also point out that by 2015, there could be as many as 3 million technical jobs outsourced by American companies. Sustained unemployment among engineers and computer scientists also suggest that the talent is there, but there is no place for them to go. A second article by Michael Teitelbaum, program director for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a major supporter of science research, asks the question, “Do we need more scientists?” He points our similar statistics about unemployment in various science fields as well as the fact that there are other, more lucrative and attractive fields of study our best and brightest may opt for, such as legal or business professions.
Both articles cited above make valid points. Most analyses have focused on the supply of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. However, the statistics concerning the demand for scientists and engineers have been overlooked. Quite simply, if young, bright American students who are looking at the job market to try and decide on a major see tremendous outsourcing in technical fields, unemployment trends, and smaller salary potential in technical fields, they will choose other majors. This is hard to argue with. Until demand and incentive catches up with supply, the U.S. should expect to see the rest of the world continue to make gains on the U.S. lead in science and technology, if not take the lead away from the U.S. in more and more technical areas.