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United States Science

U.S. Science and Engineering Research Flattens 273

Invisible Pink Unicorn writes "The National Science Foundation is reporting that the number of published U.S. science and engineering articles plateaued in the 1990s, despite continued increases in funding and personnel for research and development. This came after two decades of continued growth. Since then, flattening has occurred in nearly all U.S. research disciplines and types of institutions. In contrast, Asian and EU research had significant increases in this period. They do point to one positive for the US, however: article quality. According to one of the researchers, 'the more often an article is cited by other publications, the higher quality it's believed to have. While citation is not a perfect indicator, U.S. publications are more highly cited than those from other countries.'"
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U.S. Science and Engineering Research Flattens

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  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:34AM (#19924573)
    In the US, research has first of all be "pleasant" to whoever funds it. Yes, that's true for most countries, but nowhere else you'll find as much industrial and political influence into research. Try to do a research on, say, climate change and watch the government go crazy over it should you dare to come up with results that point to us as the reason for an increase in temperature.

    Add the religious side and you'll see why Europe currently feels an influx of researchers, not only from "poor" countries where they can't get funding, but also a healthy dose of quite capable people from the US who prefer to ponder what their findings mean, not to ponder what they may write should they not want to be censored. It's Reneaissance all over again, where you can find whatever you want, but if you want to remain in the good standing and be respected as a researcher, you better find what government, industry and especially media want to hear, or you'll soon find yourself being attacked and badmouthed, and your reputation ruined.

    Would you want to do research in that kind of climate?
  • by Ihlosi ( 895663 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:40AM (#19924599)
    Yes, that's true for most countries, but nowhere else you'll find as much industrial and political influence into research.

    Actually, the more that applies to a country, the more likely that country is to go down the drain. See history books for examples.

  • by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:45AM (#19924617)
    Look at:

    nuclear weapons/research: Albert Einstein and many other exiles from Europe
    computers: John Von Neumann (Hungarian)
    rockets and space: America's space and rocket program was kickstarted by a nucleus of German scientists after the war bought here

    That is not to say we don't have our own home grown talent - just that science is an international activity and we have been lucky enough to be able to draw the best and brightest, foreign or domestic, to our country.

    Whether it remains so in the long run, I am not certain - it requires an open and free country (something we're losing) and enough wealth, of course, as cutting edge science often requires funds scientists usually don't have themselves and hence the US was a good place to find patronage.
  • by clickety6 ( 141178 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:57AM (#19924675)
    I wonder if the higher citation rate of US articles is due to the fact they are written in English and therefore more accessible to a higher percentage of the scientific community? Presumably a lot of a country's scientific publications will be in the language of that country and it would be reasonable to assume that an article published solely in, of example, Russian or German, would be less widely cited outside the Russian or German speaking communities...

  • Creationism (Score:4, Insightful)

    by VincenzoRomano ( 881055 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @05:59AM (#19924685) Homepage Journal
    is flattening American brains!
    That'd be why!
  • by pubjames ( 468013 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @06:13AM (#19924735)
    The US will always have it's place at the top table

    Why is that? You're chosen by God?

    This kind of attitude has been heard many times before going back through history. Ask the Brits. Or the Spanish. Or the French. Or the Chinese. Or the Iranians (yes, they too where once "at the top table"). I could go on, but you get the point I hope...

    When my great grandmother was alive the Brits dominated the world as comprehensively as the USA does today.
  • by golodh ( 893453 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @06:20AM (#19924763)
    As everyone knows, an important means for the US to get hold of top scientists and researchers is to attract them ... often from abroad. Just look at the engineering faculties such as those at MIT; about half of the Ph.D students are from abroad (India, China, Europe), and about one third to one half of the faculty.

    The US continues to be attractive because it tends to offer the best facilities (laboratories, datasets, computers, funding) in the world. Plus it hosts some of the best researchers in the world. Taken together this of course attracts *other* very good researchers. This in turn results in articles that have a higher citation index than most. So far so good.

    I believe that the US cannot realistically expect to continue to lead the world in basic scientific research. As a matter of fact, it has lost that position already in a number of fields. What I believe it *can* expect to do is to continue to lead the world in applying research and turning up with innovative products.

    Why? Because part of it is cultural. People here are always willing to go out and build something for themselves, which is the essence of starting a business, and society as a whole is very much geared towards giving new ideas and new businesses a chance, weed out the failures, cherish the successes, and let those who failed try again. That's important. In e.g. Europe failure in a business venture attracts a heavy stigma. Not so in the US. In the US it's also relatively easy to hire people for a startup, and to fire them the minute things go wrong, or even if revenues are lower than expected. And last but not least ... in the US venture capitalists are thoroughly aware that they must sow ten potatoes to reap one truly outstanding venture, three reasonably ones, and perhaps six poor ones. Unless other countries can copy that, the US is at an advantage.

    Now both China and India are busily trying to imitate the US in this respect, and especially China has made a lot of headway. But the US still has the lead. And to be honest ... who would want to go the China and learn Chinese when they can also go the to US and use the English they learned in school? Excepting Chinese of course. Ever tried to find your way in China? The US has a big cultural advantage when it comes to competing as a destination of choice.

    The undertone of the article is a bit warning of course. Even if one were somehow able to revitalise the US primary and secondary school system *and* make it attractive for Americans to pursue a career in science and/or engineering instead of business management, law, marketing, the military, etc. etc., it would take about two decades for the results to become visible. Personally I would say that the best bet for the US is continue to do what it has traditionally been good at, which is to focus on first attracting and then absorbing those immigrant researchers and turning their research into products.

    This is precisely why the US takes such an agressive stance on "Intellectual Property", and does whatever it can to make every country in the world respect US copyrights. It's of strategic importance.

    This is also at the heart of the US immigration policy, which runs approximately as follows: "We want those of you if you are the best or one of the best in your field. Those we will welcome to stay, and offer the chance to join the club and become a citizen. Others will be required to enter as illegal immigrants."

    It's a bit parasitic, but it works.

  • by pieterh ( 196118 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @06:36AM (#19924829) Homepage
    The patent system is poison for research publication. I heard a remarkable comment from the EU Commission (DG Research) who were boasting that they were collecting a great patent portfolio, and only had one problem: the tendency of their researchers to publish articles, thus sabotaging the patent collection process. But, they have a solution, namely to educate researchers to publish less.

    The horrid irony of it all is that the only valid basis for the patent system is to encourage people to publish in cases where they would otherwise keep precious designs secret.

    There is absolutely no justification for patents in areas where people publish spontaneously. Except, of course, greed, and the lust for money above all.

    Time for reform of the global patent system.
  • by Rsriram ( 51832 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @07:01AM (#19924945)
    This assumes that the quality of research in all papers are average. The only indicator of quality being used is citation. But the visible technological impact is derived from application of research rather than quantity or quality of research. For e.g. the country that first creates a quantum computer is going to obsolete lot of the research that is going on in the silicon world. A 1000 papers on current computer hardware might not be worth the one paper that explores application of quantum computing. How do you measure this and determine quality of research. It is highly likely that these 1000 papers have more citations as well. R&D outfits that are developing applications of quantum computing might not really spend more time on writing research papers for publishing.
  • by 19061969 ( 939279 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @07:14AM (#19924999)
    Excellent point, although I'm not sure it's just the business school types. Having to chase funding (many academics and scientists spend 40-50% of their time on this) doesn't help because grants are more likely to be awarded if an immediate and viable application can be demonstrated.

    That means that pure research is harder to pursue because of grant competitions. It's very sad because applied research may end up only being relevant to very specific groups. Pure research can also provide some of the most startling insights into the world and create real leaps in knowledge.

    I had this argument with my father: he said that a lot of scientific research is pointless and doesn't help anybody ("research for its own sake") until I pointed out the number of things that we take for granted these days that were based on theoretical research.
  • Re:Also (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kripkenstein ( 913150 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @07:23AM (#19925037) Homepage

    Almost half of researchers working in US establishments are foreign. We just don't have the homegrown talent any more.
    No, that's not it. The simple facts are
    • The top US academic institutions have the most money of any in the world, by far.
    • Money can facilitate research, and hence the top researchers tend to go where the money is (so they can accomplish the most they possibly can).
    • The US is a large country, but small compared to the entire world. Japan has almost half as many people as the US. The EU has more. Let's not forget Russia. And then there are China and India.
    • Speaking of China and India, education is rapidly increasing there, leading them to actually generate an 'industrialized nation' share of scientists proportional to their population.
    Given all these factors, you shouldn't be surprised at all that the faculty at top US academic institutions are diverse. It might have nothing to do with any 'decline' of US capabilities (I'm not saying there isn't such a thing, just that this particular observation doesn't really support it).
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 20, 2007 @07:24AM (#19925041)

    "I wonder if the higher citation rate of US articles is due to the fact they are written in English and therefore more accessible to a higher percentage of the scientific community?"

    In most fields, that does not matter much. All good scientists in e.g. physics publish in english. What IMO matters more is that both American and European authors tend to cite american authors. The reason for that may be any of "American author did a better study", "American author did it earlier", "American author bragged more about his work", or "American author works in America".

  • by vorlich ( 972710 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @07:25AM (#19925049) Homepage Journal
    altruistic ideals (in the main). Young people are very practical when there own self-interest is involved. Students, especially in the USA where, according to Dr Gil Grissom, the degree is worth $1 million and almost costs $1 million, tend to choose course that will provide a cost benefit appropriate to their needs. They need to pass a course and be awarded a degree worth having (in relative terms).
    In the past a degree in law was the opportunity to earn high salaries. Now of course there are far too many lawyers and not enough cases to supply them. Science and engineering degrees are not as popular, perhaps because some work involving measurement, assesment and being able to look up a book or a dictionary using all of the letters of the alphabet is a requisite.
    Degree courses go through fads, witness the number of marketing graduates in the late 80's early 90's most of whom are not employed with a stone's throw of any marketing activity. Science is presently akin to magic and prospective students are surprised to discover that membership of Slytherin, is not part of the enrolment procedure. Nor are they given a magic wand or a tricorder along with the university calendar. The necessity to provide some evidence of achievement in the form of science papers and test results is a pale shadow to the ease of making an extended exposition on man's obsession with himself in lawyer school. Thank goodness there is no stand alone course concept in Web Design - lecturing staff would be crushed in the stampede as so many students (when asked to express a preference) often suggest that they intend a career in PR (the discipline of mixing a rather tasty Bucks Fizz.) or Web design. When you are paying for your education by working in The Golden Arches or as an exotic dancer, it becomes rather important to you, to choose a career path that you expect to be rewarding, at least in the financial sense if nothing else.
  • by methano ( 519830 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @07:26AM (#19925051)
    No. It's because there are few jobs and the pay isn't so good. The employment situation for PhD chemists in the US is miserable and has been steadily getting worse for the last decade. It's because people in the US don't want to work hard enough to get a PhD and work at half the pay for an MBA who worked half as hard to get where he is, whom they suspect is only half as smart. Americans may be lazy but they ain't stupid. The people from outside the US that populate our labs didn't know that when they came. They'll soon be going home, as the wages back home rise.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 20, 2007 @07:27AM (#19925057)
    The education system in the US was watered down starting in the 60's. It became politically incorrect to flunk anyone, so standards were lowered. Just look at the current administration, a product of the 60's. In the US, athletes are idolized whereas those interested in science are labeled GEEKS and outcasts. How much does a good scientist make? How much does a good athlete make? There's the answer.
  • by exultavit ( 988075 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @07:30AM (#19925079)

    When I was a little kid, being a scientist was one of the coolest things you could be. Hell, I used to play with chemistry sets so I could pretend to be a scientist. No, today "Science" is under such constant attack I'm not surprised that people would rather become consultants to some corporation or move overseas to work.
    If chemistry sets, model rockets, and amateur astronomy have truly become unfashionable to kids, I think it would much more to do with Steve Urkel than with anything that creationists have ever done.

    However, I doubt that science activities are actually strictly uncool to kids these days. The problem is that they are competing against video games, cable TV, and the internet.
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @07:53AM (#19925239)
    And here I was, trying to keep Godwin outta the argument for a change...:)

    Too true, actually. You have no idea how much "research" in Germany between 34 and 45 was tied to finding "proof" that they're the superior race. Especially in history, anthropology and related studies, trying to do sensible and unbiased research was a surefire way to not only getting no money, but also often losing whatever reputation you had, while coming up with "results" that defy or outright contradicted reality were praised and rewarded.

    And honestly, I feel a trend in today's "research" in some areas that matches this. Not to the same extent, by far not, but when you get funding for rather questionable and scientifically dubious projects from a research fund to "prove" some religious theory, something's going wrong.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 20, 2007 @07:55AM (#19925265)
    Whether it remains so in the long run, I am not certain - it requires an open and free country (something we're losing) and enough wealth, of course, as cutting edge science often requires funds scientists usually don't have themselves and hence the US was a good place to find patronage.

    Another factor is legal environment. In addition to the recent high profile bans on Stem Cell research, we have much stronger safety and environmental laws here. If you are willing to play fast and loose with these issues, many other nations like China, Russia, and middle eastern nations are more willing to let you imperil thousands for the chance to snag a breakthrough.

  • by NeverVotedBush ( 1041088 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @08:02AM (#19925295)
    But that is definitely changing. Corporations don't value research now. Some do - biotech is probably now the best example - but by and large, US companies are obsessed with acquisitions, splits, layoffs and wage cuts in order to provide the fastest, greatest profits to shareholders.

    It is a short-sighted approach that is leading to the situation we are now finding ourselves in - Americans unable to do the work required in this technological society. As a culture we have made fun of scientists, valued the steroid-pumped athlete and the slash and burn executive. But innovators, researchers, teachers, etc - all of the professions that would have been able to prepare this country for the future - have been basically discarded.

    No child left behind? How about a whole country. We are quickly becoming a third-world entity with nothing but poor and uneducated immigrants flocking here for the vision of what used to be. The people who were/are here are now unable to think critically, innovate, etc.

    There are exceptions of course but this is the overall situation. Check any tech rag for an editorial - the critical shortage of US workers capable to do the jobs necessary to keep this country afloat. This is not a time to be like this. We are now dependent on foreign countries for manufacturing, energy, and a lot of raw materials. What do we bring to the table?

    It seems all we bring are consumers of the crap we have to import. And that is bankrupting this country fast.
  • by Ihlosi ( 895663 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @08:03AM (#19925305)
    And here I was, trying to keep Godwin outta the argument for a change...:)

    Just take a different example, then. The history books are still full of them even if you omit Nazi Germany.

  • by Wiarumas ( 919682 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @08:16AM (#19925385)
    If a person was capable of being both, I would assume he would be smart enough to realize the probability of being an athlete is very low so investing time into education (even if its a backup plan) would be a smart move.
  • by DarenN ( 411219 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @09:11AM (#19925815) Homepage
    I've no problem with the "no child left behind" but how about a "no child slowed down" program?

    Facilities in the US are good, but a lot of research seems to be funded by military sources, which some might have an objection to, and in the US the focus is far to narrow - it's on getting a marketable product ASAP. It's been reported here that because universities in the US are now responsible for their own IP, they have IP lawyers hanging around. This is not an atmosphere conducive to innovative research.

    Another problem, which is a problem in the EU also, is that funding from corporations is required for most research projects. This means that any research goals have to be watered down to make them acceptable to shareholders. This is also not conducive to innovative research. Neither is the simplistic "Paper Counting" which values number of publications over anything and everything else (it's very frustrating and slows down actual work a lot).

    Micheal Crichton, in a talk, suggested that companies who want to donate to research donate to an anonymous fund. They can specify in what areas it goes, but the researchers never know who donated, and the results are public. This makes more sense than the short-term profit view of companies influencing research.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 20, 2007 @09:23AM (#19925915)
    "The only way we won't leave a child behind is if this bus never leaves."
  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @09:27AM (#19925949) Homepage
    ...they'll find another self-serving dubious metric to avoid facing the truth.

    "U. S. research articles consistently rated higher than European articles on the Flesch Reading Ease scale."

    "U. S. research articles have been shown to be higher in 'eyeball stickiness.' Readers spend more time per page, go back and read each page more often, and 'click through' to generate more reprint requests than European articles."

    "The NAS reported that although U. S. research failed to meet all eighteen of its benchmarks, it had made satisfactory progress toward achieving eight of them."
  • by gatzke ( 2977 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @09:29AM (#19925965) Homepage Journal
    I love big physics as much as anyone, but I doubt the SSC would have significantly increased publications overall. Sure, they may find out some great fundamental information about the creation of the universe, but overall impact on society would probably be minimal. Unless the SSC could sort out time travel or make some sort of super-duper uber nuke... I doubt that anything practical or useful would come from the SSC (although some of the support technology would be practical and useful, similar to NASA impact).

    NSF funding is generally quite difficult to obtain. Researchers often spend most of their time writing proposals. NSF claims high hit rates, but most areas I know of are well under 10% in reality. Assuming you are an average scientist, you have to submit ten proposals to get one funded. Usually that means one or two students for three years. If you double or triple that hit rate, you get more students and typically more publications and results. Even senior folks in my discipline are complaining about NSF hit rates; they had been funded for years and years, but now that had evaporated or diminished.

    I did hear a couple of years back that NSF was going to double over the next few years. Hopefully that works out, but they may just spend it all on big physics...

    From what I understand of the European systems in general, it is not quite the same. Graduate students in many cases are supported by the state. Money is given directly to the university or the "dean" and then researchers get a portion. This means they can focus more on getting papers out and developing students rather than submitting their 10-15 proposals per year.

    I would like to see more industrial support, but industry in general has a much shorter horizon to look at. They want results in 3-6 months in many cases. It may take 3-6 years to get a graduate student to be truly productive. Some researchers do very well with industrial support, but in general it has diminished as well.

    And as much as people lament earmarks, they come into play in the academic arena. Often an earmark is not some crazy bridge to nowhere, it is just a line-item specification in a funding bill for something reasonable. "Here DOE, here is a zillion dollars, however you need to spend a million bucks at some school on their favorite research topic." Otherwise, the program managers may just spend all their money however they want, so earmarks can steer money into projects mandated by senators and representatives rather than the government officials. Not ideal necessarily, but not super evil either.

  • by chipotlehero ( 982154 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @09:32AM (#19926009)
    I go to a top 5 engineering school. Even there the emphasis is less and less on the actual science and more on business and so called leadership skills. People are being trained less in hard science and more in corporate ways. If you take an engineering class, from my experience, half the people don't care about being an engineer and want to get their MBA and be a manager and "make money".

    Until we get rid of this crap that "The business of America is business" this will not change and we will continue to lose ground on the science front.
  • by gtall ( 79522 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @09:47AM (#19926173)
    "a lot of scientific research is pointless and doesn't help anybody"

    Bingo, that kind of attitude would have prevented Einstein from getting funding today for "gravity studies". He and many others started quantum theory, they had no application they could point to. Biology is replete with these examples; modern drugs would be impossible without the previous theoretical work that was "pointless", not to mention all the advances in other disciplines that no one in those disciplines had any idea would be of use in the technology behind biology or medicine.

    And you are right, many scientists do spend 40-50% of their time on begging for money, I and my fellow scientists here do as well. It's an insane way to fund scientists. I'm good at doing science, not writing goddamn grant proposals for some business school product to wonder about. I mostly do logic and math, try making a claim for money without tying it to some feature (security, reliability, etc.) that not only pollutes the grant proposal, but will waste gobs of my time both in feeding some application I was pushed into supporting and making it hard to do because I haven't the time to get the theory correct before I must somehow apply it.

    Also, science progresses as much by its failures as its successes. In an atmosphere that only rewards applications, by definition it pisses on anything that might fail. The consequence is that scientists are pushed into small incremental steps that only extend established theory in a minor way rather than thinking far outside the box. Thinking outside the box can be abused, but so too can forcing us to only think inside the box.

  • by capitol ( 1130783 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @10:01AM (#19926329)
    Bell Labs was the greatest R&D facility in the world. Unix, Fiber Optics, Telephones, etc are a few that come to mind. We need to bring back the spirit of innovation just for the sake of innovation. This dedication brought in tons of foreign revenue into our economy. I can walk down to a "foreign" Citigo and see people with "foreign" PSPs and "foreign" Toyotas. I try not to buy any foreign products, but it gets hard sometimes. (That's what she said) Head of the Congressional Science Committee stated that, "When I look at my daughter (Age 2 at the time), I see the first generation of Americans that will have a lower standard of living than their parents. That is not the American Dream" (Not sure on the quote)
  • by PIPBoy3000 ( 619296 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @10:35AM (#19926735)
    Actually, this demonstrates a key difference in the educational philosophies of China and many South American countries. In South America, the focus was on the best and the brightest. In China, the focus was on getting everyone the equivalent of a high school education.

    Now, obviously there's lots of other factors, but note that China has a huge industrial base now. Basically anyone can work in a factory or business doing ordinary tasks. In South America, the poor continue to be poor and the well educated move to other countries.

    I'd like to think there's significant value in teaching nearly everyone to read and write well, basic math skills, and the ability to follow directions. Remember that these immigrant children are going to end up marrying your daughters, working in your office, and taking care of you in your old age. You get a pretty good return on investment spending a few thousand dollars in basic education per kid. Don't let prejudice derail common sense.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 20, 2007 @10:44AM (#19926833)
    I agree with you. Whatever happened to vocational schools? I understand not leaving a "child behind" in elementary school, as long as it does not detriment the rest of the class, as everyone should have a solid grasp of the basics. But once students hit middle school, and certainly high school, we should accept the reality that not everyone is headed for the corner office of a fortune 500 company, and I doubt my area is unique in the fact that it NEEDS more tradesman, especially honest ones. Instead, we have kids that just can't handle the courseload taking physics, and peer pressuring kids to cut class, drink, and the like.

    From an educational standpoint, what I loved about college the most was being around my PEERS that actually valued education. I learned as much from them as I did from my professors.

    As an aside, we all hear about how the sky is falling because the US is behind on standardized tests. What few people seem to take into account is that other countries hand pick who gets to sit in that room to take these tests, while every US child is taking the same tests here. I think South Korea would be knocked down a few notches if they sat peasants down with a #2 pencil.

  • by grumpygrodyguy ( 603716 ) on Friday July 20, 2007 @01:10PM (#19929099)
    According to the report, Japan's article output rose at an average annual rate of 3.1 percent, five times faster than the United States.

    The European Union, which passed the U.S. several years ago in total numbers of articles published, posted an average annual growth rate of 2.8 percent during the same period, more than four times faster than the United States.

    Law of diminishing returns my ass. And this plateu began to occur in the 90s? Would that be the late 90s? Would that be right before the Fundy/faux-Conservative/Anti-Intellectual revolution in politics occurred in the US? Massive sweeping tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% (most importantly corporations) does tend to dampen scientific development; so does cutting the programs that rely on those tax dollars for funding. Unbridled, shameless bedsharing between corporations and educational institutions resulting in patents instead of universally accessible scientific results also tends to suffocate collaboration (i.e. scientific progress).

    If anything, the rapid proliferation of computer, network, and storage technologies should have made the 200X years a blockbuster decade for science and technology in the US. But sadly my friends, when you ignore politics...or live in a country ignorant enough to vote extremists into office...you will see very real effects down the road. The only bright side to having that clown in the whitehouse and his cronies in power is that a great deal of money (read massive debt that you and your children will have the responsibility of paying down over decades) went into defense related research and development. Historically, those technologies will eventually migrate back into civilian hands.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them WHAT to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. -- Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.