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Headlines Published on 11 May 2004

Title USA – A scientific empire on the decline?

Is the United States starting to lose grip on its dominant global position in the sciences? They seem to think so. Recent US government and private reports point to US declines in several key scientific indicators.

Could America’s dominance of science and innovation be a thing of the past? © Source: PhotoDisc
Could America’s dominance of science and innovation be a thing of the past?

© Source: PhotoDisc
For years, the European Union has treated the USA as a yardstick for what it needs to achieve in science and innovation. That stick – measuring performance in terms of research graduates, patents, prize winners, scientific citations, etc. – appears to be getting shorter, US experts reported earlier this month.

Asia’s ascendancy and Europe’s determination, especially in basic science, have begun to erode America’s dominance in science and innovation, according to John Jankowski, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation (NSF). “The rest of the world is catching up – scientific excellence is no longer the domain of just the US,” he told the New York Times last week.

The leading American daily offers many examples where the USA fears a loss of scientific status. One area, international patents, is still strong but Asia is on the rise. The US share of industrial patents has fallen steadily over recent decades, now standing at almost 52%. In published research – once a US mainstay – it has also experienced serious decline.

In physics journals, American papers went from 61% in 1983 down to just 29% last year, according to a tracking study by Physical Review. A European Commission study showed that Europe overtook the USA in the mid-1990s as the world’s largest producer of scientific literature. Many of the USA’s woes are outlined in the National Science Board’s January report ‘An emerging and critical problem of the science and engineering labor force.

On the rise
In terms of Nobel Laureates, the US’ supremacy has taken a fall as well, from its peak performance in the 1960s down to about half of the prizes given out by the committee in the sciences last year. Britain, Japan, Russia, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and New Zealand took the remaining prizes.

But what worries many US analysts is that Europe and Asia’s achievements are going unnoticed in the States – meaning their ascendancy may continue unchecked. In March, European scientists detected methane on Mars, a sign that life may exist on the red planet, but the American public only saw news of the US mission. Europeans also intend to dominate particle physics, with plans to launch the world’s most powerful atomiser in 2007.

The New York Times and The Scientist say that US politicians and the research community acknowledge the problem, but despite 2004’s record high research budget – over €126 billion, €66 billion going to military research – and significant industrial investment in science and technology, the weakening of American research fundamentals continues.

Another key indicator, the number of new doctorates in science, peaked in 1998, according to America’s NSF, then fell 5% the following year, representing a loss to the States of some 1 300 new scientists. Bright science students from China, India and other Asian countries – especially since the 11 September attacks – have been going home or choosing to study elsewhere, causing a worrying, for US authorities, reverse brain drain problem (see Headlines, 19 December).

As America’s eyes widen to its rivals’ growing potential, experts on both sides of the Atlantic recognise that this spirit of competition will ultimately benefit the world of science and technology in its efforts to fight diseases and improve living standards for all citizens. The difference is, the profits from such innovations may not be predominantly US for much longer.   

Source:  Press sources

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More information:

  • National Science Board Report
  • Science and Engineering Indicators (NSF, May 2004)
  • US-Forschung verliert an Bedeutung (Spiegel, 3 May 2004, in DE)
  • US is losing its dominance in the sciences (New York Times, 3 May 2004)
  • US faces science shortage (The Scientist, 6 May 2004)
  • Battle of the brains (Headlines, 31 March 2004)
  • Fundamental research: basic ingredient for EU competitiveness (Headlines, 6 April 2004)
  • US scientists and engineers – your country needs you (Headlines, 19 December 2003)

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