May 3, 2004

U.S. Is Losing Its Dominance in the Sciences

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

"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

"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

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

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

"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."