US faces ‘Head Winds’ in Science, Engineering as China Plays Catch-up


A new federal report assessing the state of science and engineering in the United States concluded that other parts of the world, particularly China, are catching up with America while its global dominance continues to slip away.

“Where once the US was the uncontested leader, we now are playing a less dominant role in many areas,” Diane Souvaine, the chair of the National Science Board, said in Washington.

“There’s no denying that the US science and engineering enterprise faces head winds,” Souvaine said. “Fifty-nine years ago, President Kennedy sent America on a path to the moon. Today we find ourselves again in an hour of challenge and change.”

The report, The State of US Science and EngineeringOpens a new window , is published every two years by the science board and submitted to Congress. It says the United States’ public, private and academic sectors spent a total of $548 billion on research and development in 2017, which was the largest of any country.

Globally, R&D spending totaled more than $2 trillion that year.

Another report, by the nonpartisan Congressional Research ServiceOpens a new window , issued three months before the National Science Board’s, concluded that the federal government’s R&D spending declined 17.2% from  2009 to 2016 in dollars adjusted for inflation.

Business spending for R&D grew by 2.2% in the same period, which included the Great Recession.

China in front

Most of the new research and development investment in 2017 occurred in China, which is probably the world’s largest R&D performer now. “China may already have surpassed the US in total expenditures at some point in 2019,” said Julia Phillips, chair of the National Science Board’s science policy committee, based on a science board projection.

Science and engineering are closely connected to the US economy and national security. However, Phillips distinguished between fundamental research and experimental development. The United States was still ahead in the former, but China was pushing money into the latter, creating new things as opposed to new knowledge.

“Basic research is the seed corn of our (science and engineering) enterprise, a global competitive advantage and the starting point for much of our GDP growth since World War II,” Phillips said.

In education, the United States produced 800,000 science and engineering graduates in 2016 compared with one million in Europe and 1.7 million in China.

Around a third of US doctoral degrees in 2017 went to foreign students, who often stay in America after graduation to contribute to the country’s economy. Six out of 10 workers with PhDs in the United States are born abroad.

The United States, once the major beneficiary of a global brain drain, now faces competition. Universities in China and India are attracting international students as the number of foreign students enrolling in American universities is falling from their peak in 2016.

Gun violence, anti-immigrant rhetoric and extreme politics play a part in the decline, according to a recent studyOpens a new window by an association of international educators. Potential visa difficulties and widely reported shootings also are contributing to a downturn in US attractiveness to students.

Diversity delay

The state-of-science report looked at diversity in the United States and showed that numbers of women and under-represented minorities had increased. But the rate of change was slow.

Women made up 29% of the science and engineering workforce in 2017, up from 26% in 2003, and under-represented minorities increased from 9% to 13% over the same time frame.

“The science and engineering enterprise in the United States ideally should reflect our population in race, ethnicity and gender,” said Phillips. “It’s clear that we have a long way to go.”

While all is certainly not good in the realm of American science and engineering, it’s not bad either.

“To remain a leader,” said Souvaine, “we need to tap into our American can-do spirit and recommit to strong partnerships among government, universities and industry that have been the hallmarks of our success.

“I believe we should react with excitement, not fear, because we are well positioned to compete, collaborate and thrive.”