[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: U.S. Is Losing Its Dominance in the Sciences

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Wed May 5 16:43:36 PDT 2004


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U.S. Is Losing Its Dominance in the Sciences

May 3, 2004
 By WILLIAM J. BROAD 



 

The United States has started to lose its worldwide
dominance in critical areas of science and innovation,
according to federal and private experts who point to
strong evidence like prizes awarded to Americans and the
number of papers in major professional journals. 

Foreign advances in basic science now often rival or even
exceed America's, apparently with little public awareness
of the trend or its implications for jobs, industry,
national security or the vigor of the nation's intellectual
and cultural life. 

"The rest of the world is catching up," said John E.
Jankowski, a senior analyst at the National Science
Foundation, the federal agency that tracks science trends.
"Science excellence is no longer the domain of just the
U.S." 

Even analysts worried by the trend concede that an
expansion of the world's brain trust, with new approaches,
could invigorate the fight against disease, develop new
sources of energy and wrestle with knotty environmental
problems. But profits from the breakthroughs are likely to
stay overseas, and this country will face competition for
things like hiring scientific talent and getting space to
showcase its work in top journals. 

One area of international competition involves patents.
Americans still win large numbers of them, but the
percentage is falling as foreigners, especially Asians,
have become more active and in some fields have seized the
innovation lead. The United States' share of its own
industrial patents has fallen steadily over the decades and
now stands at 52 percent. 

A more concrete decline can be seen in published research.
Physical Review, a series of top physics journals, recently
tracked a reversal in which American papers, in two
decades, fell from the most to a minority. Last year the
total was just 29 percent, down from 61 percent in 1983. 

China, said Martin Blume, the journals' editor, has surged
ahead by submitting more than 1,000 papers a year. "Other
scientific publishers are seeing the same kind of thing,"
he added. 

Another downturn centers on the Nobel Prizes, an icon of
scientific excellence. Traditionally, the United States,
powered by heavy federal investments in basic research, the
kind that pursues fundamental questions of nature,
dominated the awards. 

But the American share, after peaking from the 1960's
through the 1990's, has fallen in the 2000's to about half,
51 percent. The rest went to Britain, Japan, Russia,
Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and New Zealand. 

"We are in a new world, and it's increasingly going to be
dominated by countries other than the United States," Denis
Simon, dean of management and technology at the Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute, recently said at a scientific
meeting in Washington. 

Europe and Asia are ascendant, analysts say, even if their
achievements go unnoticed in the United States. In March,
for example, European scientists announced that one of
their planetary probes had detected methane in the
atmosphere of Mars - a possible sign that alien microbes
live beneath the planet's surface. The finding made
headlines from Paris to Melbourne. But most Americans,
bombarded with images from America's own rovers
successfully exploring the red planet, missed the foreign
news. 

More aggressively, Europe is seeking to dominate particle
physics by building the world's most powerful atom smasher,
set for its debut in 2007. Its circular tunnel is 17 miles
around. 

Science analysts say Asia's push for excellence promises to
be even more challenging. 

"It's unbelievable," Diana Hicks, chairwoman of the school
of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology,
said of Asia's growth in science and technical innovation.
"It's amazing to see these output numbers of papers and
patents going up so fast." 

Analysts say comparative American declines are an
inevitable result of rising standards of living around the
globe. 

"It's all in the ebb and flow of globalization," said Jack
Fritz, a senior officer at the National Academy of
Engineering, an advisory body to the federal government. He
called the declines "the next big thing we will have to
adjust to." 

The rapidly changing American status has not gone unnoticed
by politicians, with Democrats on the attack and the White
House on the defensive. 

"We stand at a pivotal moment," Tom Daschle, the Senate
Democratic leader, recently said at a policy forum in
Washington at the American Association for the Advancement
of Science, the nation's top general science group. "For
all our past successes, there are disturbing signs that
America's dominant position in the scientific world is
being shaken." 

Mr. Daschle accused the Bush administration of weakening
the nation's science base by failing to provide enough
money for cutting-edge research. 

The president's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, who
attended the forum, strongly denied that charge, saying in
an interview that overall research budgets during the Bush
administration have soared to record highs and that the
science establishment is strong. 

"The sky is not falling on science," Dr. Marburger said.
"Maybe there are some clouds - no, things that need
attention." Any problems, he added, are within the power of
the United States to deal with in a way that maintains the
vitality of the research enterprise. 

Analysts say Mr. Daschle and Dr. Marburger can both supply
data that supports their positions. 

A major question, they add, is whether big spending
automatically translates into big rewards, as it did in the
past. During the cold war, the government pumped more than
$1 trillion into research, with a wealth of benefits
including lasers, longer life expectancies, men on the Moon
and the prestige of many Nobel Prizes. 

Today, federal research budgets are still at record highs;
this year more than $126 billion has been allocated to
research. Moreover, American industry makes extensive use
of federal research in producing its innovations and adds
its own vast sums of money, the combination dwarfing that
of any other nation or bloc. 

But the edifice is less formidable than it seems, in part
because of the nation's costly and unique military role.
This year, financing for military research hit $66 billion,
higher in fixed dollars than in the cold war and far higher
than in any other country. 

For all the spending, the United States began to experience
a number of scientific declines in the 1990's, boom years
for the nation's overall economy. 

For instance, scientific papers by Americans peaked in 1992
and then fell roughly 10 percent, the National Science
Foundation reports. Why? Many analysts point to rising
foreign competition, as does the European Commission, which
also monitors global science trends. In a study last year,
the commission said Europe surpassed the United States in
the mid-1990's as the world's largest producer of
scientific literature. 

Dr. Hicks of Georgia Tech said that American scientists,
when top journals reject their papers, usually have no idea
that rising foreign competition may be to blame. 

On another front, the numbers of new doctorates in the
sciences peaked in 1998 and then fell 5 percent the next
year, a loss of more than 1,300 new scientists, according
to the foundation. 

A minor exodus also hit one of the hidden strengths of
American science: vast ranks of bright foreigners. In a
significant shift of demographics, they began to leave in
what experts call a reverse brain drain. After peaking in
the mid-1990's, the number of doctoral students from China,
India and Taiwan with plans to stay in the United States
began to fall by the hundreds, according to the foundation.


These declines are important, analysts say, because new
scientific knowledge is an engine of the American economy
and technical innovation, its influence evident in
everything from potent drugs to fast computer chips. 

Patents are a main way that companies and inventors reap
commercial rewards from their ideas and stay competitive in
the marketplace while improving the lives of millions. 

Foreigners outside the United States are playing an
increasingly important role in these expressions of
industrial creativity. In a recent study, CHI Research, a
consulting firm in Haddon Heights, N.J., found that
researchers in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea now account
for more than a quarter of all United States industrial
patents awarded each year, generating revenue for their own
countries and limiting it in the United States. 

Moreover, their growth rates are rapid. Between 1980 and
2003, South Korea went from 0 to 2 percent of the total,
Taiwan from 0 to 3 percent and Japan from 12 to 21 percent.


"It's not just lots of patents," Francis Narin, CHI's
president, said of the Asian rise. "It's lots of good
patents that have a high impact," as measured by how often
subsequent patents cite them. 

Recently, Dr. Narin added, both Taiwan and Singapore surged
ahead of the United States in the overall number of
citations. Singapore's patents include ones in chemicals,
semiconductors, electronics and industrial tools. 

China represents the next wave, experts agree, its
scientific rise still too fresh to show up in most
statistics but already apparent. Dr. Simon of Rensselaer
said that about 400 foreign companies had recently set up
research centers in China, with General Electric, for
instance, doing important work there on medical scanners,
which means fewer skilled jobs in America. 

Ross Armbrecht, president of the Industrial Research
Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington that represents
large American companies, said businesses were going to
China not just because of low costs but to take advantage
of China's growing scientific excellence. 

"It's frightening," Dr. Armbrecht said. "But you've got to
go where the horses are." An eventual danger, he added, is
the slow loss of intellectual property as local
professionals start their own businesses with what they
have learned from American companies. 

For the United States, future trends look challenging, many
analysts say. 

In a report last month, the American Association for the
Advancement of Science said the Bush administration, to
live up to its pledge to halve the nation's budget deficit
in the next five years, would cut research financing at 21
of 24 federal agencies - all those that do or finance
science except those involved in space and national and
domestic security. 

More troubling to some experts is the likelihood of an
accelerating loss of quality scientists. Applications from
foreign graduate students to research universities are down
by a quarter, experts say, partly because of the federal
government's tightening of visas after the 2001 terrorist
attacks. 

Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, told the recent forum
audience that the drop in foreign students, the apparently
declining interest of young Americans in science careers
and the aging of the technical work force were, taken
together, a perilous combination of developments. 

"Who," she asked, "will do the science of this millennium?"


Several private groups, including the Council on
Competitiveness, an organization in Washington that seeks
policies to promote industrial vigor, have begun to agitate
for wide debate and action. 

"Many other countries have realized that science and
technology are key to economic growth and prosperity," said
Jennifer Bond, the council's vice president for
international affairs. "They're catching up to us," she
said, warning Americans not to "rest on our laurels." 

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/03/science/03RESE.html?ex=1084800616&ei=1&en=205295a3d84e5259


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