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science 2008-2009: 13: the gathering storm

By Jon E Agar, on 30 September 2009

In mid-2005, a wave of anxiety spread among the shapers of science policy in the United States. It was fear that, in a globalised world, other countries would soon overtake the United States as leaders in science, and consequently, so the argument went, as leaders in innovation and ultimately in economic might. The United States moved from being a net exporter of high-technology goods ($45 billion in 1990), to a net importer ($50 billion in 2001). Furthermore, because of the visa restrictions introduced after 9/11, the number of scientists migrating to the United States was dropping. At school and university, students were dropping science and engineering. The United States was becoming a less attractive place to be a scientist.

Politicians, further alarmed by a poll that recorded that 60% of scientists felt that science in the United States was in decline, asked the National Academies (the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine) to suggest, urgently, ‘ten actions…that federal policy-makers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community of the 21st century’. They got back more than they asked for. The report, brainstormed by the elite of American science, titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (2007), ran to over 500 pages and urged 20 actions.

The actions included: training more teachers of science, increasing federal investment in basic research by 10% a year for seven years, offer attractive grants to outstanding early-career scientists, set up ARPA-E, fund lots of graduate fellowships, tweak the tax incentives for research, and make sure everyone has access to broadband internet. Some of these actions were indeed implemented.

What are more significant for this ‘history of science in the twentieth century and beyond’ are the assumptions behind the panic. First, there was an argument that relates economic power to basic research. The authors were in no doubt that ‘central to [American] prosperity over the last 50 years has been our massive investment in science and technology’ (p.205). Second, the competition that most worried the politicians was the gathering forces of China and to a lesser extent the European Union countries, South Korea and India. The huge populations of China and India mean that only a small percentage need be trained scientists or engineers to more than match the aggregate number in the United States.

Nevertheless, the evidence supporting a claim that the United States is losing its leadership in the sciences is slim. What is certainly happening is a globalisation of research and development. Global companies are now very likely to tap the skills and cheap salary costs of China, India and other fast developing nations. More research and development is conducted off-shore, and the trend will continue. But this does not mean a lessening of American predominance. Indeed the United States (as is the United Kindom) is the beneficiary of this trend: foreign-funded research and development has rocketed, and in the 2000s more corporate research and development investment flowed into the United States than was sent out (p.210).

2 Responses to “science 2008-2009: 13: the gathering storm”

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