May 03, 2004
United States Fading As Scientific Research Leader

US leadership in science is slipping.

One area of international competition involves patents. Americans still win large numbers of them, but the percentage is falling as foreigners, especially Asians, have become more active and in some fields have seized the innovation lead. The United States' share of its own industrial patents has fallen steadily over the decades and now stands at 52 percent.

A more concrete decline can be seen in published research. Physical Review, a series of top physics journals, recently tracked a reversal in which American papers, in two decades, fell from the most to a minority. Last year the total was just 29 percent, down from 61 percent in 1983.

The article cites a number of measures of relative decline of the US position. In some categories the centers of greatest expertise are clearly in other countries. At the same time the US is attracting fewer foreign graduate students and fewer of them are staying in the US once they graduate.

One possible response to this trend would obviously be to increase spending on basic research. But in the face of a huge budget deficit the Bush Administration is probably going to take the opposite step and increase the rate of US decline from its leadership position in science. See my previous post Bush Administration To Cut Many Categories Of Research Spending for the depressing story.

Another possible response would be to pursue an immigration policy which keeps out less intelligent people and makes it much easier for the smartest people to enter and stay in the United States. Of course, the idea of using IQ as a criterion for immigration admissions is incredibly politically incorrect in the United States at this point in time. But before the US falls even further in world ranks in science and technology and while we can still afford to pay to attract top talent we really ought to shift our immigration policy toward one where only the best and the brightest can get in. My posts on this subject are found in my ParaPundit category archive Immigration Brain Drain. As for the question of whether, if we only had the will, could we keep out the less bright the short answer is "Yes" and this could be achieved at an affordable cost if only the political will existed to enforce immigration laws. For a longer answer see my category archive Immigration Law Enforcement.

In some quarters there is a religious belief in the United States as inevitable world leader. I do not subscribe to this view. Powers rise and fall and the US is no exception. Lots of others centers of scientific and technical prowess are obviously rising. While that trend promises to be beneficial because of the resulting knowledge that will raise living standards and increase youthful life expectancy the world over it is clearly a signal that the days are numbered for US as sole "hyperpower". The current leadership in Washington foolishly concentrates too much on using existing power to pursue their short term goals (including doing any number of things to get themselves reelected that are financially harmful in the longer run) while warning lights are flashing that the US's future position will be far less mighty

To some extent the US is a victim of its own history of successes. When a country can succeed in spite of doing foolish things too often it happens that those foolish actions are pointed to as the reasons for success. The US has been lucky in many ways for centuries and therefore at least some Americans have had a tendency to embrace false myths to explain its successes (e.g. that all immigration is good or that God has specially blessed the place).

I see luck as a big factor in America's success. The US was lucky not to be conquered by Hitler or ruled by communists. It was lucky to be separated by oceans from the greatest military threats of the last few centuries. It was lucky to have lots of natural resources such as iron ore, coal, and oil and farmlands ideal for growing crops. It was also lucky to inherit some "cultural software" that Samuel P. Huntington has labelled as dissenting Anglo-Protestantism (which most of America's intellectuals now foolishly dismiss). These and other factors have given the US a pretty good run to the top. Some factors such as a fairly low level of government corruption, an effective legal system for protecting physical and intellectual property, and a free society continue to weigh in US favor today. But not all trends are favorable as the NY Times article linked to above shows.

American demographic trends combined with the adoption of more effective policies in many other nations (e.g. the economic liberalization in much of South and East Asia) are not favorable to the continuation of the US position of clear economic, technological, and, scientific, and military leader. Our room for error is getting smaller very quickly. It is not even clear that the wisest and most astute policies can maintain the current US position. The ratio of population between China and the US is so large that if the Chinese achieve even one fourth of the per capita productivity of the US then the US economy will cease to be the largest. Depending on whether you treat the EU as a single political unit (a debatable proposition) the US potentially already isn't number 1. Though at least in terms of an aging population the EU has an even bigger demographic problem than the United States

The US position is in some ways similar to the British position of the late 19th century. The British home islands population was too small to maintain their position of economic leadership and dominance of a world empire. Their leaders could have played their hand more wisely. Daniel Drezner argues that Germany gained on Britain in industry because the more decentralized structure of the German goverment allowed the regions to innovate in educational and science policy (PDF format) in ways that the British failed to do. But even a better played hand couldn't haved fix the Briitsh demographic Achilles Heel of having a smaller population than Germany and the United States. This is the position the US finds itself in today especially vis a vis China.

Drezner's point about the advantage of a decentralized structure of power speeding the rate of innovation in Germany in the late 19th century does not bode well for the US either (and probably bodes even worse for EU countries as Brussels gains more power). The states, burdened with Medicaid and other expensive federal mandates have lost a considerable amount of autonomy as Congressional legislation, court rulings, and regulatory agencies shift power toward the center. National mass media has tended to make all issues into federal issues to be solved by policy initiatives cooked up by national politiicans and inflicted on local schools and other lower level institutions. The growth of federal involvement in educational policy works against the development of local and state level educational policy innovations.

Aside from a smarter immigration policy and more federal funding for science what can be done about America's relative decline? One potential area for policy innovation is in how science is funded. Science is a classic public good. But it is a good for which it is hard to decide what to fund. One can't predict which research projects will pay off as easily as, say, one can predict which paths for highways will serve the most drivers. If incentives could be developed to encourage science funding by sources aside from the federal government then the distributed nature of the funding sources would reduce the harmful effects of the centralized setting of priorities. The rate of innovation may well increase as a consequence. Possibly tax law at the federal level could be changed to encourage more private philanthropy for science. A mechanism to provide state governments more incentive to fund science might also accelerate the rate of research and development.

Here's an idea for how to make the drive toward centralized regulation work to increase state-level innovation: when states and regions fail to achieve some federally mandated environmental regulatory goal the US Environmental Protection Agency can fine them. But instead of fining them and allowing the federal government to take the fine money how about allowing the states to spend that money on research into topics aimed at developing processes that do not pollute? How about setting a regulatory goal and then allow states to point to funding of research and development as a good faith attempt to achieve that regulatory goal?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 May 03 01:46 AM  Policy Science

Gerard Van der Leun said at May 3, 2004 8:39 AM:

"But before the US falls even further in world ranks in science and technology and while we can still afford to pay to attract top talent we really ought to shift our immigration policy toward one where only the best and the brightest can get in."

Alas, if we did that where would the Democratic party find new voters?

William Ford said at May 3, 2004 12:51 PM:

Did America owe it's scientific dominance in the latter half of the last century to foreigners? I haven't looked at the issue in detail, but the facts in the NYT article don't lend much support to that view.

* "scientific papers by Americans peaked in 1992"

* "the numbers of new doctorates in the sciences peaked in 1998"

* "After peaking in the mid-1990's, the number of doctoral students from China, India and Taiwan with plans to stay in the United States began to fall by the hundreds"

It's obvious to me which way the causal arrow points. American science "peaked" first, even as the number of foreigners planning to stay in the US increaed. I don't see that attracting more immigrants, of whatever IQ, is an answer. Maybe you should be more concerned with "the apparently declining interest of young Americans in science careers and the aging of the technical work force." Was the decline of interest in science careers among Americans associated with the rise in the proportion of foreigners in science majors and the presence in American technical universities of large numbers of unintelligible TAs? That's my gut feeling.

MichaelA said at May 3, 2004 1:21 PM:

I wonder about the economics of science as it relates to the interest of Americans pursuing it as a career. It seems to me (as a non-scientist) that the US still retains a strong advantage in the biological sciences while we have slipped in the physical sciences and engineering. This seems to correlate to the priorities of our nation and other nations. When the United States was pursuing large-scale infrastructure and research projects (TVA, Manhattan Project, Interstate Highway, Apollo Program)we excelled at producing and attracting civil and structural engineers and physicists. These are the very types of projects that East and South Asia are pursuing with great vigor now. In the US, interest in aging and post-industrial industry (pharmaceuticals, technology) is now a societal priority and so it seems a research priority for American students.

Randall Parker said at May 3, 2004 1:53 PM:

I certainly agree with William Ford that foreign grad students have effectively discouraged Americans from going to grad school in the sciences and engineering. The higher supply of those grad students compete for teaching assitant and research assistant positions and also drive down salaries of those with masters and doctoral degrees.

However, if those foreigners stay here and do research that seems like a net gain for the US economy as a whole.

Also, the smart native born who respond to foreign competitors by deciding to go into other fields still are going to do well and be more productive than the less smart people.

MichaelA, I agree US interests have shifted toward the biological sciences. I think that we are making a mistake by not funding the rest of science better. NSF's budget is so much smaller than NIH's budget and that seems a serious mistake. Also, I think physics, chemistry, and engineering disciplines have a lot to offer to accelerate the rate of advance in biology and I favor shifting funding toward people from other disciplines to work on instrumentation and computer models for biology.

froth said at May 3, 2004 6:16 PM:

I know journalists are more likely to be English majors than Math majors, but the arithmetic weaknesses in this NYT article are distressing. Its alarmist tone is completely unwarranted.

First of all, a shrinking share of something is not the same as total shrinkage. Except for the reduced number of doctoral degrees, it's almost impossible to tell from the article whether the US loss of "science leadership" share isn't simply due to improvement in Europe, India, and China. The advancement of science is not a limited good or zero-sum game. This is the upside of public goods. Their gain is our gain, and vice versa. An economically strong and scientifically productive Asia and Europe would produce benefits that lift all boats, in the scientific and economic realms. "Leadership" is simply the wrong metric at this stage, where we're more eyeing the size of the pie than discussing how to slice it and allot it. The only downside to a billion people in India and a billion people in China contributing more and gaining a larger share of scientific publications is purely rhetorical and demogogic.

This article also conflates basic science and technology. Here the economic argument is even worse than the arithmetic. While the public good argument may dominate the basic science debate, it certainly plays a miniscule role in technology. Patents are economic tools defined for the marketplace, clearly designed to establish and enforce property rights. Patents do not play in a discussion of public goods. They are also a poor proxy for technological progress. Look at start-ups, venture firms, etc., instead, when talking about technology. It is a much more pragmatic arena, where earnings can be measured, risks quantified, and the incentives are much better aligned with a much better known payoff for one direction or another of investment. No degree of centralization is required, please.

Even if rumors of future cuts of some branch or other of federal government funding bear out, they are not responsible for past years' downturns during times of record spending. And what in the world is the comment "The current leadership in Washington foolishly concentrates too much on using existing power to pursue their short term goals (including doing any number of things to get themselves reelected that are financially harmful in the longer run)" supposed to imply? That the previous leadership in Washington was far-sighted and wise, never using power for short term goals like reelection?

Toby said at May 3, 2004 6:23 PM:

One thing I've noticed recently, that wasn't present 10 years ago, is a tendency among my colleagues to state that they are unwilling to pursue postdocs/study/work in America. The reasons tend to fall into three broad categories; namely:

1) They are ideologically opposed to America's prevailing political climate.
2) They prefer the lifestyle in other countries.
3) They dislike being treated as criminals everywhere they travel.

In all honesty, I'm not sure that the advantage to America of science performed in America is significantly greater than the advantage to America of science done elsewhere. Similarly, I'm not convinced that an obsession with being the ultimate superpower is constructive in the long run.

Randall Parker said at May 3, 2004 7:00 PM:


I criticise the current leadership because they are the ones making decisions right now. I'd spend more time criticising past decisions if I could refine my arguments in advance of getting into a time machine and travelling back to tell them of mistakes to avoid.

However, each age has its great challenges. One of our great challenges is the need to deal with an aging population. We have tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities. Granted, that situation has taken decades to build up. But the crisis is getting close enough now to justify a big reaction. In my view one facet of a strategy for dealing with it should be to accelerate the rate of advance if biomedical science with an aim to delay aging and thereby reduce the number of retirees. But Bush is moving in the opposite direction, piling on more unfunded liabilities while cutting research.

As for relative versus absolute ranking: relative ranking matters too. It matters, for instance, whether the most powerful country in the world is a liberal democracy or an autocratic dictatorship.

There certainly is a relationship between patents and public goods. Lots of university researchers file for patents. Lots of university reseachers develop ideas that they then take into the private sector to commercialize.

froth said at May 3, 2004 8:35 PM:


That's exactly my point. Not everything that a university researcher produces is a public good. Commercialized patented products are excellent examples -- even if they are produced in public at a public university and are really, really good. I'm sure you're aware how touchy a subject it can be when a publicly subsidized researcher enriches himself from publicly funded research.

I'm more sanguine about the aging population than you are. If there is one thing we are breeding for since the advent of birth control (in any country), it is for a population that wants to have children qua children and not just as byproducts of mating. But, regarding the recent increase in geriatric liabilities, I agree that it is an unhappy state of affairs when the only opposition Bush received from the opposition party was that he didn't increase them enough.

Regarding Toby's comments, I may be biased living in Silicon Valley with its large number of Indians, but the primary reason I notice that they return home is that 8 out of 10 firms that VCs are backing are outsourcing to India. The place is booming and more power to them. They certainly are drinking our "prevailing political climate" up over there.

The "prevailing political climate" in our universities is what is driving out many of my acquaintances from postgrad educations. As these institutions cement in a reputation for selecting students based on ideology rather than capability, any PhD and most non-technical postgraduate degrees are more of an albatross around the neck than a plus on your resume. Politicization is the danger (mostly realized) of publicly funding non-public goods.

Randall Parker said at May 3, 2004 9:18 PM:

Froth, Practically speaking it is hard to guess when a researcher who is doing basic research will stumble upon an idea that can be commercialized. There is no way to selectively dole out basic research money to avoid researchers coming up with anything useful. Plus, why would we want that outcome?

When researchers do stumble upon such an idea then I am happy to see them leave academia to go off and start a company to commercialize it. I think we all benefit from new high tech companies started here. Better that our own researchers are doing this than some other country's.

Note that the recent increase in unfunded liabilities represents just a small fraction of all the unfunded liabilities.

Bill said at May 4, 2004 9:38 AM:

Alex Tabarrok has an economist's take on this linkto: with couple links on the PhD job market.

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