He who does not move forward each day, goes backwards..." Those wise words from Chinese philosopher Confucius should be a warning for the current state of American scientific research.
"Our universities are still among the best, and our scientists among the most active," says the smiling, mustachioed Alan Leshner. The director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a global organization with more than 10 million members, is optimistic - with a caveat. "The United States has a leadership role in most sciences, but we are seeing a gradual erosion of its position in many specific fields," such as particle physics, says Leshner.
In the rapidly changing scientific world, the National Science Board, in its Science and Engineering Indicators (S&EI) 2012 report, sounded the alarm -- but virtually no one heard it.
Is American science in decline?
Barack Obama seemed to have heard the alarm bells. In December 2008, he assured that science would play a central role in his administration. "The President was a big supporter of science," says Leshner. "He put excellent people in key positions, and got increasing amounts of money for scientific research." One example was the nomination of Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, to the Department of Energy. Chu implemented ARPA-E, a government project to research future energy challenges.
"He understands the importance of research," says Anne Glover, a Scotswoman who is the chief scientific advisor to the European Commission. "But he has his hands tied by Congress, which prevents him from doing anything," especially as the 2009 economic crisis was not conducive to unlimited financing for research.
And now, the U.S. is seeing other scientific powers come onto the scene.
On one hand, says the S&EI report, "The EU is seeking to hold its own in the face of these worldwide science and technology shifts. Its innovation-focused policy initiatives have been supported by the creation of a shared currency and the elimination of internal trade and migration barriers."
"I don't know if American science is in decline, but European science is getting better," says Glover. Many unique research facilities are in Europe, including the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva and the future nuclear fusion reactor ITER in France. "And our scientists are less modest about their success!"
On the other hand, according to the report, "Asia’s rapid ascent as a major world science and technology center is chiefly driven by developments in China, which on most indicators continues to show long-term growth that would normally be regarded as unsustainable.” Leshner says, "More and more countries are developing their scientific infrastructure, and that is a good thing. More science somewhere is good for science everywhere!"
Statistics are a good indicator of the boom in research and development (R&D) in Asia. Since 1997, China has dedicated a budget to R&D that has increased by about 22% a year, with a record rise of 28% in 2008-2009. That year, the total expenditures for R&D, public and private, throughout the world rose to $1.3 trillion, 32% of which was spent in Asia, and 12% in China alone, compared to Asia's share of 24% in 1999. The U.S. still contributed 31% of the total in 2009, remaining the largest R&D performer. But in 1999, the U.S. percentage was 38%.
The R&D/GDP ratio has not stopped growing in Asia, while it has been stagnating in the West. Currently, the ratio is 2.9% in the United States.
But it is when looking to the future of science in the U.S. that things start to look troubling. In February the White House tried to demonstrate that the administration was pursuing its efforts in favor of R&D, for example increasing the budget for the National Science Foundation, which finances basic scientific research, and for the Department of Energy, for applied research.
But the numbers speak for themselves. The 1.4% increase in the amount for research in the 2013 U.S. budget, which amounts to $140.8 billion, is not enough to make up for inflation, which was 2.5 % in 2011. What is more, the amount the president had requested was less than the year before, only 3.7 % of the entire budget, compared to 4% in 2012.
Scientists are less worried about these statistics than they are about the sword of Damocles that hangs over the entire American government: the Sequestration Act, or "fiscal cliff." Last year, Congress decided that if it could not come to an agreement on $1.1 trillion worth of budget cuts by the end of 2012, automatic cuts into all budget items would take place starting on January 2, 2013. There will be no mercy for the science budget.
The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), an independent think tank, has calculated that if this happens, public financing for R&D will be cut by about $12.5 billion in 2013. For many, the impact will be significant. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, buys 18 % less research than in 2004. By 2013, it will have lost 41 % of its public funding in a single decade.
"This will have a devastating effect on American science," warns Leshner. And probably on science elsewhere as well. According to the ITIF report, published in September, this could result in the American GDP being at least $203 billion smaller in 2021. The economy would lost 200,000 R&D jobs by 2013. And by 2021, American scientific publications would decline by 8% and patents by 3%." These sectors are already in trouble in the United States.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, a very restrictive American immigration policy kept many foreign ‘brains’ from obtaining U.S. visas. That situation is over, the S&EI report reassures us. "Not completely," says Konrad Steffen, a Zurich, Switzerland glaciologist, who for ten years directed the CIRES in Boulder, Colorado. The CIRES is one of the most important centers in the world for environmental science. For example, he says, "One of my students, a Swiss who was excellent, wanted to pursue his studies in the United States, where two institutes wanted him. He was not able to get a visa and was not even told why. I believe that the feeling of exclusion linked to these immigration issues is discouraging some colleagues from planning a career in the U.S." Leshner, though, while admitting there is a visa problem, believes that "the United States is still a top destination for young foreign scientists."
Is it still a top destination for American school kids? "Yes," says sociologist Alexandra A. Killewald in an interview with Scientific American. The image of a leaky “pipeline” to describe the American education system “doesn’t work.” As proof, she says, the percentage of university students who receive a science diploma is larger than the percentage of high school students who want to study science in college. According to Killewald, science is still very popular, to the point that university curricula have had to adapt.
In fact, she says, more than liking or disliking science, the problem is about economic and cultural factors in access to university education. These constraints can keep Latino and African-American students from choosing a major in science, even if they are very brilliant. "The brightest kids will always get a good education," says Leshner, referring to the scholarship system in the United States. "The real problem is that for the past 30 years, most school kids have received a bad science education. The level in grade schools is mediocre." The Obama administration, hoping to bridge the gap, launched a $100 million program to help the most imaginative science teachers. During the 2012 election campaign, the Democratic candidate also promised to train 100,000 new science teachers in the next ten years.
Discouraging young innovators
On the other hand, the AAAS blames another thorn in the side of the American system. Young innovators have to wait too long, until they are 42 years old, on average, before getting their first grant. This is terrible for two reasons. On the one hand, it discourages young people at the outset, and on the other, the people who get the grants are no longer in their most creative years, between 20 and 30.
Frozen salaries, enormous amounts of time trying to get funding, few sources of employment-- these are all reasons that foreign scientists in the U.S., where at least a third of university diplomas are earned by non-Americans, are returning to Europe or Asia. In China, their number is growing by 12% a year. "If it pursues this policy, the U.S. will have a hard time continuing to attract the best ‘brains’," says Glover.
This demographic trend can be observed in the number of science articles published. For many years, the United States was ranked first. Today, although the U.S. and the EU each represent 20% of the total number of scientists, the U.S. provides 24% of published scientific articles, while 30% come from the Europe, according to Elsevier, a major science publisher. In the past ten years, the percentage of articles from Asia has climbed from 14% to 24%. "More than the quantity, it's a question of evaluating the quality of published research, which is still often better in the West," says Leshner.
To many observers, the burgeoning growth in European and Asian science is also linked to their scientists’ ability to collaborate internationally. Glover says, "If we manage to increase the EU's R&D budget from 55 to 80 billion for our Horizon 2020 program, it will be to work with the best. There is no such initiative in the United States." In an analysis published in Nature magazine, Jonathan Adams, a specialist in evaluating scientific research at Thomson Reuters, argues on the contrary that the U.S. is more and more open to collaboration, but that that is not enough. "The Western scientific powers need to stop waiting for the brains to come to them. They should also be sending scientists to Asia and India, to experiment with a variety of approaches. They must be ready to learn, not just to teach."
Another indicator of the pulse of a country is its capacity to innovate. The last OECD report on the United States continues to consider the nation as very much on top, even if cracks are showing. Two ITIF experts are more critical in their appeal, published in September. America needs a robust national innovation and competitiveness strategy. “The reason that the death of Steve Jobs, in 2011, called up such an emotional response was that in the depressed atmosphere, Americans could not help but wonder if that American hero was not the last of a magnificent line of inventors," concluded a recent article in Le Monde.
"That is not my observation," says Leshner. "There are still plenty of people bursting with ideas. But innovation originates in basic research. Diminishing that source means cutting off nourishment to all kinds of innovation in the economy, in the health-care system, in people's daily life. Science is central to all these fields. To stay competitive, a country needs to make sure it takes care of science. Otherwise, yes, decline is certain."