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The National Science Board's Policy Recommendations to the Science & Engineering Indicators 2010

bridges vol. 25, April 2010 / Feature Articles

By Philipp Marxgut

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As it does every other year, in January the National Science Board (NSB) published its nineteenth in a series of biennial science indicators reports: "Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 ." This publication is widely regarded as an authoritative source of "analyses of key aspects of the scope, quality, and vitality of the Nation's science and engineering enterprise in the context of global science and technology," as NSB Chairman Steven C. Beering put it in his memorandum to the President and Congress of the United States.  

The bottom line of the 2010 report is that the US still remains the world leader in R&D, but its dominance has eroded in recent years, mainly because of the rapidly growing R&D capacities of the Asia-8 economies (China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand). The US accounted for about one-third ($369 billion) of the $1.1 trillion worldwide R&D total in 2007, followed by the Asia-8 ($338 billion), and the EU-27 ($263 billion).


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The growth momentum clearly lies in Asia. The rise of China with R&D growth rates of more than 20 percent annually between 1996 and 2007 is particularly stunning (compared to growth rates in the US and EU-27 averaging 5-6 percent annually). "China is achieving a dramatic amount of synergy by increasing its investment in science and engineering education, in research, and in infrastructure, which is attracting scientists from all over the world," said NSF Director Arden Bement in his remarks on the occasion of the Indicators 2010 release on January 15, 2010, adding that "the slope of the line is accelerating rather than decelerating."1

Faced with these challenges, on February 19, 2010, at the AAAS annual meeting, the NSB brought out a policy statement "companion" to the Indicators report, addressing policy concerns resulting from these trends.  

The growing global S&T capacity presents challenges to US competitiveness in high technology areas and to its position as a world leader in R&D. "While increased global R&D research capacity holds great promise for the advancement of scientific knowledge and collaboration in R&D across international borders, the US government must be attentive to developments in R&D capacity around the world, and take proactive steps to maintain our nation's competitive strength," Beering writes in the document.

In order for the US government to remain the world leader in R&D developments, the NSB recommends the following set of actions.

1.    The National Science Foundation should assess its two criteria for funding of S&E research to ensure that the criteria encourage the proposing and support of truly transformative research, and should modify the criteria and/or merit review process if the assessment finds modifications necessary to accomplish this goal.

For 60 years, the NSF has been a role model for other science funding institutions around the globe and one of the great success stories of the US science enterprise. It has contributed significantly to making the US the world leader in R&D by funding basic research based on merit review for proposals across all fields of R&D. The two evaluation criteria for research funding are:

  • What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
  • What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

The NSB's recommendation to look into the criteria by which research grants are evaluated means examining whether they take into account the changing world order in 21st century R&D.  "Without question, we must give greater recognition to the importance of international research collaborations," said NSF Director Arden Bement at the AAAS Annual Meeting on Feb 20, 2010. "We can no longer think of ourselves as at the top of a few highly advanced economies," he added. "There is a burgeoning group of scientifically and technologically adroit nations and their numbers are consistently growing. We need to continuously sharpen our skills at both collaboration and competition in S&T." He concluded that a more concerted emphasis on interdisciplinary research is required, since most issues are interrelated, intertwined, and interdependent. "An increasing trend toward open access to research data will also move us more quickly toward our goals," said Bement.

2.    The Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President, through the National Science and Technology Council mechanism, should engage all Federal agencies involved with S&E research to: (a) develop means to assess or continue to assess the quality of their agency's supported research against international activities, and (b) identify and as appropriate make adjustments necessary to ensure that their agency's research is world-leading.


3.    The Office of Science and Technology Policy should call for a President's Council on Innovation and Competitiveness as described in the COMPETES Act. Issues for discussion would include: (a) relationships between US and foreign-supported R&D to ensure continued vitality and growth of US technical strength, (b) safeguarding national interests in intellectual property, (c) ensuring that the US economy benefits from R&D supported abroad, and (d) assessing critical research areas for which the US should be the global R&D leader.

The NSB noted that an increasing number of developed and developing nations have established strategies and goals for specific R&D areas in which to concentrate their public research investment, with the expectation of stimulating economic growth and employment. Therefore, the NSB recommends benchmarking the results of the US investment with that of other nations and making appropriate adjustments if necessary.

For many decades, the vision of the US research enterprise was to be the world leader in every field of R&D. "Over the years there have been debates about whether this nation should continue to aspire to be the world leader in S&T," Neal Lane, the science advisor to President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001, said at the AAAS Meeting. He went on, citing Lewis Branscomb, who said 26 years ago: "We can afford and should commit to giving American scientists a competitive opportunity to be the best in every worthwhile area of scientific knowledge ... if we don't adopt ‘the chance to be the best' as a goal, we will forever be plagued by timidity and doubt."

However, other nations have established specialty niches and developed indigenous world-class capacity2   (e.g., Singapore in biomedical sciences, physical sciences, and engineering; China in technological developments of energy, water resources, and environmental protection). Faced with this increasingly strong competition and a gradual erosion of the US position in many specific areas3 , the US must decide how to position itself in this global race and identify the aspirations and goals. For example, the US might have to decide whether it is critical that certain R&D research capabilities be conducted within the US border in order to protect vital economic and security interests.

The NSB seems to assume that the US will depend increasingly in the (near?) future on international R&D collaboration. Faced with the rapid growth of China's R&D capability, Steven Beering said on January 15, 2010, "Money isn't the answer. The answer is more partnerships between industry, academia, and the government. And we need to think globally."

Some years ago, one could have had the feeling that the United States was not overly interested in international S&E partnerships. The research capacity at home was (and still is) world-class in almost any field, and partnerships with foreign teams were more in the interest of the latter. It seems that the situation is gradually changing. The US has become increasingly active in international S&E collaboration, not only to advance its own research and innovation capacity, but also to utilize science as a pool to improve relations with other countries and regions. The 2008 "International Science and Engineering Partnerships" report by the NSB and recent initiatives by the Obama Administration on US Science Diplomacy (the President's Cairo speech, the State Department's science envoy program, etc), which are now taken up by Congress are indications of a changing mind-set in Washington.


The author, Philipp Marxgut, is the director of the Office for Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria. He has been accredited as Austria's Attaché for Science & Technology to both the USA and Canada since July 2007.


1 http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2010/01/nsfs-science-in.html
2 R&D Indicators 2010, 0-20
3 R&D Indicators 2010, 0-3


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