America’s leading position in global science and innovation is slipping, according to a recent Thomson Reuters report on the performance of the G-20 world economies. If the trend continues, it may augur trouble for the nation's economic growth.
After increasing scholarly output in science fields each year since 2002, measured by citations of published papers in respected journals, U.S. science research output fell from 2011 to 2012, the report found.
“There needs to be another generation that picks up this research,” David Cohen, co-director of the Harvard-MIT division of health sciences and technology at the Harvard School of Medicine, said. “If you lose a generation of scientists, you lose the research because of the slack, and you don’t pick yourselves up very quickly.”
A key factor in the decline is funding. The federal government began cutting research and development spending in 2008 during the financial crisis, and funding has yet to recover to prerecession levels.
“It’s no secret,” Cohen said. “In all the science journals, they comment … the dollars spent on research have declined, and now they’re declining even further. I’ve had numerous very good colleagues shut down their labs and do something else because the funding environment is so difficult.”
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The budget sequester cuts that took effect March 2013 slashed funding for the National Institutes of Health by $1.5 billion, the Department of Health and Human Services by $1.6 billion, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by $474 million and the National Science Foundation by $283 million, among other science-related agencies.
“We can expect that as austerity continues to be a priority for the federal government, there will be some pullback in R&D spending in the U.S.,” Mark Hamrick, Washington bureau chief for Bankrate.com, said. "Business spending took a hit during the financial crisis."
Generally, while some developed countries, especially the U.S., and the European Union, have produced fewer research articles, developing countries have rapidly increased their research over the past decade, claiming larger percentages than ever before of the world’s research authorship.
China has upped its research production, mainly in materials science, chemistry and physics, from 5.3 percent of the world’s total in 2003 to 14 percent in 2012, according to the Reuters report. Research production as a share of the world’s total in the U.S. fell from 33 percent to 27.8 percent in the same time period, and in the EU, fell 3 percent.
Among developed countries, Great Britain, France and Australia increased research output the most since 2002.
Basic medical research, clinical medicine, biological sciences and earth and related environmental science are the fields producing the most research in the U.S, followed by physical sciences and astronomy, mathematics, computer and information sciences and agricultural sciences. Notable science fields producing the least research in the U.S. are engineering and technology and chemical sciences.
Kenneth Smith, professor emeritus of chemical engineering at MIT, said it’s “inevitable” that rapidly growing economies developing their science and engineering infrastructures are producing more research. He’s not worried about them. He’s more worried about America’s public school system.
“I’m not sure it’s wise to single out STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] as people do because I’m worried about the whole system,” he said. “We’re not going to have good engineering or science unless we have a good K-12 system that really teaches people to think analytically and broadly.”
Still, Smith believes funding is a larger factor in research output. Cohen agrees.
“We’re not incentivizing the talent that we have,” Cohen said. “We do have really outstanding college students and a pipeline of people who could really be world leaders in science, but if we make it such a perilous risk to take, they’ll go to Wall Street.”
U.S. real GDP grew 1.9 percent from 2012 to 2013 while the world averaged 3 percent growth, according to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF expects global growth to average 3.7 percent this year and U.S. growth to average 2.8 percent.