The Shifting Landscape of Science


The Shifting Landscape of Science

The days of overwhelming U.S. science dominance are over, but the country can actually benefit by learning to tap and build on the expanding wellspring of knowledge being generated in many countries.

Citations to U.S. science, in the aggregate, have been flat over the past 30 years, whereas citations of research papers from the rest of the world have been rising steadily. Although the relative decline in U.S. scientific prowess is perceived by many to be unalloyed bad news, the spectacular rise in scientific capacity around the world should be viewed as an opportunity. If the nation is willing to shift to a strategy of tapping global knowledge and integrating it into critical local know-how, it can continue to be a world research leader. Science is no longer a national race to the top of the heap; it is a collaborative venture into knowledge creation and diffusion.

We all know the story of the recent scientific past. Since the middle of the 20th century, the United States has led the world rankings in scientific research in terms of quantity and quality. U.S. output accounted for more than 20% of the world’s papers in 2009. U.S. research institutions have topped most lists of quality research institutions since 1950. The United States vastly outproduces most other countries or regions in patents filed. This privileged status was partly due to the historical anomaly at the end of World War II when the United States had a newly developed and expanding scientific system, whereas most of the rest of the industrialized world had to rebuild their war-torn science systems. The United States then capitalized on its advantage by rapidly expanding government support for research.

Many governments around the world, responding to the perceived significance of science to economic growth, have increased R&D spending. In 1990, six countries were responsible for 90% of R&D spending; by 2008, this number has grown to include 13 countries. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), since the beginning of the 21st century, global spending on R&D has nearly doubled to almost a trillion dollars, accounting for 2% of the global domestic product. Developing countries have more than doubled their R&D spending during the same period.