A new data-rich report by the National Science Foundation (NSF) confirms China has overtaken the United States as the world’s leader in several key scientific metrics, including the overall number of papers published and patents awarded. U.S. scientists also have serious competition from foreign researchers in certain fields, it finds.
That loss of hegemony raises an important question for U.S. policymakers and the country’s research community, according to NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board (NSB). “Since across-the-board leadership in [science and engineering] is no longer a possibility, what then should our goals be?” NSB asks in a policy brief that accompanies this year’s Science and Engineering Indicators, NSF’s biennial assessment of global research, which was released this week. (NSF has converted a single gargantuan volume into nine thematic reports, summarized in The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022.)
NSB’s white paper hints at an answer by highlighting several factors it considers essential for maintaining a healthy U.S. research environment. The nation, it says, must sustain excellence in basic research; foster a scientific workforce more diverse in race, gender, and geography; and support high-quality precollege science and math education. The board also calls for forging closer ties between academia and industry, keeping borders open to promote international partnerships, and promoting ethical research practices.
Achieving those goals won’t be easy, says Julia Phillips, an applied physicist who chairs the NSB committee that oversees Indicators. Now retired after a long career at AT&T Bell Laboratories and the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories, Phillips spoke with ScienceInsider about obstacles posed by an uncertain budget climate and a roiling debate over how to protect research from foreign influence.
No “appetite” for more spending
“It would be the height of hubris to think that [the United States] would lead in everything,” says Phillips, who is also home secretary of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. “So, I think the most important thing is for the United States to decide where it cannot be No. 2.”
At the top of her priorities is sustaining the federal government’s financial support of fundamental science. “If we lead in basic research, then we’re still in a really good position,” she says. But the government’s “record over the last decades does not give me a lot of cause for hope.” For example, Phillips says she is not optimistic that Congress will approve pending legislation that envisions a much larger NSF over the next 5 years, or a 2022 appropriations bill that would give NSF a lot more money right away.
“How much is the U.S. willing to spend on [basic research]?” she asks. “It’s now a really small fraction of the GDP [gross domestic product]. Increasing that could be on the table. And I appreciate that Congress has consistently been more generous than [what presidents have requested]. But I see no evidence that there’s an appetite for raising that share significantly, which is what it would take.”
Distrust on research security
Phillips thinks a lack of trust between academic leaders and the U.S. intelligence community is aggravating tensions over the potential threat posed by foreign students and scientists who study and work at U.S. universities.
Members of Congress and federal security agencies have accused China of building up its research capacity by enticing U.S.-based scientists to share their discoveries. Some have blamed U.S. university administrators for lax enforcement of rules that require researchers to disclose foreign funding and are calling for tighter oversight. Universities have pushed back, saying law enforcement officials often withhold information about potential threats on their campuses and that the government’s 3-year-old China Initiative has engaged in unfair racial profiling of researchers of Chinese descent.
The friction hasn’t been helpful, Phillips says. “Some of the people that I’ve heard making those [assertions] do not fully appreciate the seriousness of the [security] issue,” she says. “I knew the director of counterintelligence at Sandia very well. And every now and then, he would come visit me and say, ‘OK, you are hiring this postdoc. And I need to tell you, there are certain things about their pedigree that gives us some concerns. And here’s what they are, here’s why.’ And because I had a [security] clearance, he could tell me that.”
“But in order for them to tell you that, there has to be a certain level of trust,” she adds. “And some of the people who are especially alarmed and making those comments [criticizing the China Initiative] have not gained the trust of individuals in the intelligence community.”
The “appalling” state of science education
The latest Indicators highlights serious—and persistent—inequities in elementary and secondary school education, such as poor students of color scoring lower than white and Asian students on standardized tests and being more likely to have inexperienced science and math teachers. Those disparities emphasize the need for NSF to continue supporting efforts to improve science teaching, Phillips says. But she concedes the federal government has limited ability to shape precollege schooling.
“The levers [of decision-making] are mainly at the local and state levels,” she says. “However, NSF has funded a lot of research on what works in the [kindergarten] through grade 12 curriculum, so there is potential for some impact.”
She adds, “This is an area in which the [National Science] Board is speaking more in its role as an adviser … and calling attention to this problem. And, in my opinion, if we do nothing more than get national attention on what I think is just an appalling situation, we will have done our job.”
Spreading the wealth
NSF has spent decades tinkering with a grantmaking process that now results in most of its dollars going to a relative handful of institutions along the nation’s East and West coasts. For example, its 40-year-old Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research tries to build research capacity at institutions elsewhere and now serves half the states. This year, NSF has asked Congress to fund a network of geographically distributed innovation hubs to boost the research infrastructure available to scientists in have-not states, and the Senate has approved a bill that would funnel 20% of NSF’s overall research budget to institutions in those states.
But even as NSF seeks ways to create a larger pool of grantees, Phillips says, the agency has wrestled with how to measure the effectiveness of such efforts. “If you’re going to pour money at a problem, you also want to know if it’s having an impact,” she says.
“One possibility is to see how patenting activity has changed in different parts of the country,” she continues. “And how much of that can you trace back to an innovation hub? [Another metric could be] how the number of [science and engineering] jobs has increased in a particular region, or the flow of talent between academia and the private sector. You see that flow all the time in Silicon Valley and in the Route 128 area [surrounding Boston]. But you don’t necessarily see it happening in other areas of the country.”