The State of U.S. Science and Engineering

Report finds the U.S. is no longer “the uncontested leader in science and engineering,” as other countries have expanded scientific capacity.

January 16, 2020
 

The U.S. share of global science and technology activity has shrunk in some areas even as absolute activity has continued to grow, as China and other Asian countries have invested in science and engineering education and increased their research spending.

That’s one of the main takeaways of the "State of U.S. Science and Engineering" 2020 report, published by the National Science Board Wednesday. The report has historically been published every other year, but starting with this year's edition, the NSB is transitioning its format from a single report published every two years to a series of shorter reports issued more frequently.

"While the U.S. remains a leading player, other countries have seen the benefits of investing in research and education and are following our example," said Julia Phillips, chair of the NSB Science and Engineering Policy Committee. "While China is not the only story, its dramatic annual rate of R&D [research and development] growth is impressive. Other countries have seen the benefits of investing in research, and China is on a path to shortly become the world’s largest R&D performer.

"The continued spread of science and engineering capacity across the globe is good for humanity: science is not a zero-sum game," she said. "However, this also means that where once the U.S. was the uncontested leader in science and engineering, we are now playing a less dominant role in many areas."

The report examines recent trends in science and engineering education, attraction of foreign talent to the U.S., the science and engineering workforce, publication output, and research and development spending amounts and funding sources, among other topics. Here are some of the main findings.

Doctoral Degrees

When it comes to the number of science and engineering degrees awarded, China has caught up quickly, and on some measures it outperforms the U.S.

U.S. universities awarded about 40,000 doctorates in science and engineering fields in 2016, second to the combined total of the 28 countries of the European Union, whose universities awarded 77,000.

China started from a low base -- its universities awarded fewer than 10,000 doctorates in science and engineering in 2000 -- but the country has quickly gained ground. In 2015, Chinese universities awarded about 34,000 doctoral degrees in science and engineering.

Associate and Bachelor’s Degrees

The U.S. awarded 93,000 associate degrees in science and engineering fields in 2017, and another 133,000 in science and engineering technologies.

Close to half (47 percent) of all U.S. students who earned bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering fields between 2010 and 2017 did some coursework at a community college. Nearly a fifth (18 percent) earned associate degrees.

The U.S. awarded close to 800,000 “first-university” degrees (broadly equivalent to a bachelor’s degree) in science and engineering fields in 2016. China awarded 1.7 million, a number that has doubled over the last 10 years. Degrees in engineering account for close to 70 percent of China’s first-university degrees in science and engineering fields.

International Students

Although total numbers of international students in the U.S. have declined since 2016, the report describes a “mixed picture” when it comes to international enrollments in science. The number of graduate students from the leading sending country, China, increased between 2016 and 2018, while the number from the No. 2 country, India, declined.

Even with declines, the U.S. remains the leading destination worldwide for international students. Students on temporary visas earned 34 percent of all science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded in 2017, and they made up more than half of all doctoral degree recipients in the fields of engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, and economics.

Since 2000, students from three countries -- China, India and South Korea -- have accounted for more than half (54 percent) of all international students earning U.S. doctoral degrees in science and engineering.

Stay Rates

The U.S. has historically retained most international graduates of its science and engineering Ph.D. programs. Between 2003 and 2017, between 64 and 71 percent of international students earning doctoral degrees in science and engineering remained in the U.S. five years after completing their degrees.

However, the proportions of students from China and India who stay in the U.S. after earning their science and engineering doctorates have declined. In 2003, 93 percent of Chinese students stayed, a figure that fell to 84 percent by 2013. The proportion of students from India who stayed declined from 90 percent, in 2003, to 85 percent in 2013. In both cases, the stay rate remained flat between 2013 and 2017.

By contrast, the stay rate for students from South Korea has increased, from 36 percent in 2003 to 57 percent in 2017.

Scientific Workforce

The report found that employment in science and engineering has increased more rapidly than for the workforce overall, and now accounts for 5 percent of U.S. jobs.

Women accounted for just 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce in 2017, up from 26 percent in 2003. Underrepresented minorities made up just 13 percent of the scientific workforce in 2017, up from 9 percent in 2003 but below their share of the college-educated workforce.

Foreign-born workers account for 30 percent of all individuals employed in science and engineering-related occupations.

Publication Output

The number of science and engineering-related publications produced by scientists in China has grown nearly tenfold since 2000, and China has eclipsed the U.S. in terms of publication volume. The E.U. countries collectively are the global leader in terms of publication output, followed by China, then the U.S.

But while China's publication output exceeds that of the U.S. in terms of quantity, China trails the U.S. and the E.U. in terms of citation impact -- a measure of how frequently publications are cited.

Research and Development

Global research and development expenditures have more than tripled since 2000, growing from $722 billion in 2000 to $2.2 trillion in 2017, fueled largely by growth in China. The U.S. and China together accounted for nearly half of all research and development spending -- 25 and 23 percent, respectively -- in 2017.

In the U.S., federal spending for research and development has increased since 2000, but the share of research and development funded by the federal government -- as opposed to businesses or other entities -- declined, from 25 percent in 2000 to 22 percent in 2017. Among higher education institutions -- which perform the largest amount of basic research, of which the federal government is the primary funder -- the share of research and development funded by federal sources declined from 57 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2017. ​

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