NSF rolls out huge makeover of science statistics

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) cornucopia of statistics on the global scientific enterprise came out today—but with a twist that makes it more timely.

In a world awash with on-demand data, NSF realized that its biennial report, titled Science and Engineering Indicators, was an anachronism. So instead of pushing out all 2000-plus pages at the same time, NSF last fall began to release chapters on science and math education, higher education, the technical workforce, and scientific publications. Four more chapters—reporting global spending patterns, academic research, trade and industry, knowledge transfer, and public attitudes—will follow in the next few months. Today’s release of a brief summary lets NSF satisfy a federal mandate to deliver a biennial report to Congress.

Shortening the time to publication helps make the Indicators report more timely, even if some of the data it analyzes are 2 or 3 years old, says Arthur Lupia, who leads the NSF directorate that produces the report. Freeing up individual chapters will allow NSF to put out more specialized reports as warranted, adds Beethika Khan, who heads NSF’s in-house Indicators crew. The agency has also revamped its online interface to make it much easier for researchers and the public to explore the data, and it now provides quarterly updates of research activity at the state level.

The long lead times needed to collect and analyze data before publication mean some data in the latest release are still outdated. For example, sometime last year, China likely topped the United States in spending on research for the first time in history. But that scientific benchmark isn’t part of 2020 Indicators. Instead, the report cites 2017 data in declaring the United States the world leader in research spending, at $548 billion.

“We think that China may have overtaken the U.S. at some point in 2019,” acknowledges Julia Phillips of the National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight body, which officially issues Indicators. The board predicted in 2014 that the changing of the guard might occur in 2018, she notes, but surprisingly strong spending by U.S. industry allowed the country to stay in front a bit longer. NSF program analysts are waiting for 2018–19 data from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development before declaring a new global spending king.

The report does not say what China’s ascension might mean for global innovation, or for U.S. economic health and national security. That’s by design, Khan says. “We have not looked at the ‘why’ questions.”

In addition to global comparisons, Indicators offers details on key U.S. trends, highlighted in the graphics below: the jobless rate for science and engineering workers, the rising share of the workforce who are foreign-born, the balance between citizens and those on student visas earning science and engineering doctorates from U.S. institutions, and the geographic fluctuations over the past decade in the market share of global publications.

Climbing out of the great recession

Although the overall jobless rate for U.S. scientific workers has dropped sharply since the global 2008 downturn, those in the physical sciences have benefited the most from the economic recovery, whereas U.S.-trained Ph.D.s and biologists feel the lingering effects.

2003 2006 2008 2010 2013 2015 2017 0 1 2 3 4 5% All scientists and engineers Those with doctoral degrees Computer and mathematical scientists Biological, agricultural, and environmental life scientists Physical and related scientists Social and related scientists Engineers
Graphic: X. Lui/Science; Data: 2020 Science and Engineering Indicators

Making room for foreign-born workers

Foreign-born scientists represent nearly 30% of the U.S. science and engineering workforce, nearly double their numbers in 1993. Their presence is largest among those with doctoral degrees, at almost 45%.

0 10 20 30 40 50% 0 10 20 30 40 50% 1993 2003 2013 2017 Bachelor’s Master’s Doctorate
Graphic: X. Lui/Science; Data: 2020 Science and Engineering Indicators

Number of domestic students holds steady

Contrary to popular belief, the share of domestic students earning Ph.D.s from U.S. institutions has changed very little since 2000 in both engineering—although they remain a minority—and across the natural and social sciences, where they hold roughly a three-to-one edge over those with foreign visas.

0% 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100% 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 U.S. citizen engineering Visa engineering U.S. citizen science Visa science
Graphic: X. Lui/Science; Data: 2020 Science and Engineering Indicators

Which countries are gaining in the war of words?

Iranian scientists represent fewer than 2% of all authors globally, but they have enjoyed the fastest growth in market share over the past decade. China’s 21% share of authorship not only puts it on top of the heap, but its annual growth is 10 times that of the United States, which holds second place.

5 0 5 10 15 20 25% 15% 10 3.83 5 0 5 10 15 20 25% 15% 10 3.83 Average annual growth rate World average annual growth rate World total China Germany India Japan Russia Italy France Brazil Canada Spain Australia Iran United States United Kingdom South Korea –0.02% –0.91%
Graphic: X. Lui/Science; Data: 2020 Science and Engineering Indicators