U.S. Science & Engineering Lags Behind (Again)

David Acevedo

Editor's Note: This article was originally published under the name "John David," the former pseudonym of NAS Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To learn more about why David no longer writes under this name, click here.

CounterCurrent: Week of 1/19

Every two years, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), a part of the NSF, produces a report for the President and Congress called Science and Engineering Indicators. In it, they detail “the state of the U.S. science and engineering (S&E) enterprise over time and within a global context,” including data on education, employment, research & development, and innovation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. significantly underperformed compared to other advanced economies, most notably China. This is nothing new; the development of American S&E has consistently lagged behind other nations for decades. Many of the specific metrics remain higher than those of our rivals, such as percentage of GDP spent on R&D, but our proportional growth over time does not measure up. China is on track to surpass the U.S. in S&E achievement within the next five years.

In this week’s featured article, The Washington Post’s Ben Guarino breaks down the report’s key findings on international S&E, which detail U.S. performance on its own and as it compares to other advanced economies such as China, Japan, South Korea, and the EU. Here are some highlights (lowlights) of the report:

  • American 8th graders ranked 7th in the world on the 2015 TIMSS mathematics and science exam. The report notes that “while U.S. students’ mathematics scores have improved since 1990 on national assessments, improvements have slowed in the past decade” (can someone say Common Core?)

  • 750,000 American students earned S&E bachelor’s degrees in 2015 compared to China’s 1.7 million. The two countries’ differing populations do not make this difference insignificant, as higher education access is not equivalent in China and the U.S.

  • By 2017, the U.S. spent over 35% less of its GDP on research & development than it did in 2000, resulting in just 20% of worldwide expenditures. China contributed 35% of global spending.

  • In 2018, the U.S. accounted for a mere 7% of patent families granted to investors, while China contributed 49%.

The reasons for the United States’ lack of S&E achievement are complex and varied, but one remains certain: irreproducibility. According to a 2017 report by Springer Nature, 86% of over 500 scientists surveyed felt that there was a “crisis of reproducibility” within their field. Three of the top four reasons cited for the crisis are the “selective reporting of results,” “pressure to publish for career advancement,” and “poor statistical analysis.” These factors and many others sully a large swath of research in virtually every field. When studies cannot be reproduced, they cease to be science. Among the effects of this crisis are a distrust of the scientific enterprise by the federal government, the creation of misguided public policy, and the stalling of true innovation.

NAS will discuss solutions to irreproducibility during our upcoming conference, Fixing Science. The aim of the conference is to discuss practical solutions to this crisis, and we have assembled many leading scientists to debate the subject. This topic is not without controversy, though.

Last week, a molecular biologist contacted nearly all of the scheduled speakers to urge that they not attend. He then stoked a fire on Twitter, encouraging invited speakers and attendees to discount or disrupt the event. NAS President Peter Wood published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal detailing the incident and reiterating NAS’s commitment to holding this event. 

The conference is still on, of course, but two speakers have dropped out due to the Twitter-mob’s pressure. This is a frustrating but ultimately unsurprising effect of the ‘cancel culture’ in which we live. The NAS will nonetheless persist in seeking solutions for responsible science, reproducibility, and data transparency.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’  weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Public Domain

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