67: U.S. Science Supremacy Threatened by Competition

By Sarah Webb|Monday, January 03, 2005

A combination of funding cuts, tougher visa restrictions on researchers, and growing science programs in other countries is threatening the United States’ position of scientific supremacy, reports the National Science Board, an independent policy group that advises the president and Congress.

In May the board raised concerns that the United States is not producing enough scientists and engineers to meet future demand. Although more American-born students are pursuing undergraduate degrees in science and engineering than ever before, many are not going on to graduate study, says Eleanor Babco, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. Economics and the lack of good science positions may lead many to choose career paths outside of research. “They find that they may languish in a postdoc position for a number of years making $30,000 to $35,000 a year with not a whole lot of benefits, when they could be going on in a professional career,” Babco says. Many science students are choosing fields with stronger job growth, such as computer or biomedical engineering.

The drop in foreign applications—down 28 percent at the graduate level—is also certain to affect the future of science. Many who come here to study do not return to their native countries. A survey by the National Science Foundation in 2000 reported that 38 percent of U.S. scientists with doctorates were born abroad. Also, foreign-born scientists and engineers tend to bring in innovative ideas and technology. It has not gone unnoticed, for example, that entrepreneurs like Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google, Andy Grove, founder of Intel, and Vinod Khosla, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, were all born overseas.

The reduction in foreign science students is exacerbated by tough visa restrictions following 9/11. But it also indicates increased competition from Europe, China, and Australia. The New York Times reported in July that China produces five times as many engineering graduates as the United States. Chinese researchers publish more than four times as many scientific papers as they did in 1988, says the National Science Board report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2004. The report also shows that growth in the number of research articles by Americans has been stagnant compared with an increasing number written by Western Europeans in the last decade.

Warren Washington, head of the National Science Board, says: “Part of the paradox is that as we go further in the 21st century, this nation is going to need its technical and scientific capability to compete. To essentially say to a new generation of scientists and engineers and science educators that there’s very limited opportunity isn’t going to do the country a lot of good.”

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