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Assessing the state of U.S. science and engineering

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12:44pm, February 12, 2010
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Every two years, the National Science Board reports to the president and Congress about the state of the science landscape. This year’s Science and Engineering Indicators report was presented to the White House on January 15. The chairman of the board’s Science and Engineering Indicators committee, physicist Louis Lanzerotti of the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, recently spoke with staff writer Laura Sanders about how the lay of the science land has changed.

Overall, is this report good news, bad news or interesting news?
Overall, I view these data as good. The United States is still very strong in research and development, and I think the data show that. But they also demonstrate that there are areas we need to look at and adapt to. The rest of the world is catching up to us in many instances — China and some of the Far East countries, for example.

In what ways are others catching up?
For example, the United States expends approximately 2.7 percent of its gross domestic product every year on research and development. Japan has always exceeded that over the last 10 years or more with an investment of about 3.4 percent of its GDP. South Korea has now crossed Japan, and as of 2007, is spending about 3.5 percent of its GDP on research and development. So both of those lead the United States in terms of their expenditure of GDP. Since 1996, China has increased its percentage of research and development expenditures from about 0.6 percent to currently about 1.5 percent of GDP, and it continues to rise rapidly.

In the Asian countries — Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand — these [big in­creases] occur because there’s a much larger annual percentage increase in those countries. The annual percentage increase from 1996–2007 in China has been over 20 percent.… Those countries are emphasizing science and engineering as a basis for economic welfare for the population and economic growth.

Were there any big surprises or trend reversals in the two years?
No, I think not. If you look at our digest, you’ll see that the trends are basically continuing: the growth of the Asian economy, the United States and Japan staying the same, the growth from South Korea. Those trends are all about the same.

One trend that did uptick a little in the last couple of years, which is interesting, is an uptick of the performance of basic research by industry in the United States. There had been a rather continual decline of basic research by industry.… In the United States, our research and development is supported approximately two-thirds by industry and one-third by the federal government. But the federal government supports basically 60 or 70 percent of all basic research, and the rest is supported by others — foundations and within industry (a rather smaller portion). And the industry portion of funding of basic research has declined steadily since around 1990, but there has been a slight uptick since around 2006 or 2007.

Are these trends here to stay? Is there a sense that the trends will reverse?
It’s hard to project. But I think some projection might be possible, or at least some discussion might be possible. The trends are a reflection of globalization of research and development and of corporate interest around the world — globalization on the part of not just United States companies, but of foreign companies as well. And I think these trends are an indication of that. The board will have a policy document based upon a portion of these data. It’ll be issued in mid-February, and it’s related to the topic of globalization and the implications that has for our national efforts in research and development. At that time the board will be making some statements regarding globalization and its influence on the trends that you allude to.

What did you find out about the public perception of science?
The interesting thing is that the perception of science and of engineering remains really very high in the United States.… Those who think it’s a very positive element of our American life … the percentage of the population who believes that is very high. It’s of the order of 75 to 80 percent, versus those who think that it’s a detriment for society, which are 10 percent or less. There have been some blips in that trend up and down by a few percent over the years, but if one does a sliding mean through all that data, one finds that that trend is basically a constant. The American public has a very strong view of the importance of science and engineering for our country. I think a very important point is that scientists rank as high in public respect as do firefighters. They’re second only to firefighters.

For the full report, go to www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind10

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