Tuesday, January 24, 2012

U.S. Science Needs to Look Beyond Our Borders

The U.S. has traditionally been the dominant world presence in science, although it of course needed to pay some attention to scientific efforts in western Europe, Japan and Canada as well. America is used to scientists and business people from other countries coming here to learn the latest breakthroughs. But the U.S. scientific edge is diminishing. As Caroline S. Wagner writes in "The Shifting Landscape of Science",
in the Fall 2011 issue of Issues in Science and Technology: "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." Here are some excerpts:

Here's Wagner with an overview of the past and what's coming: "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. ... 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. ...The UNESCO report documents that the global population of researchers has increased from 5.7 million in 2002 to 7.1 million in 2007. The distribution of talent is spread more widely, and the quality of contributions from new entrants has increased."

One common (if imperfect) measure of scientific output is the number of scientific papers published. By this metric, the European Union has taken the lead from the United States, and countries like China and Korea are rising rapidly.

Wagner's overall message is that in a world economy where science and technology are of increasing importance, and a world where a greater share of that research is happening elsewhere, and where pressures on government budgets mean that U.S. spending on R&D isn't likely to rise in a sustained and dramatic way--in that world, the U.S. scientific establishment needs to focus more on identifying excellent research happening around the world and in in keeping tabs on that research and finding ways to participate in it. Here's Wagner:
"Although the U.S. research system remains the world’s largest and among the best, it is clear that a new era is rapidly emerging. With preparation and strategic policymaking, the United States can use these changes to its advantage. Because the U.S. research output is among the least internationalized in the world, it has enormous potential to expand its effectiveness and productivity through cooperation with scientists in other countries.
"Only about 6% of U.S. federal R&D spending goes to international collaboration. This could be increased by pursuing a number of opportunities: from large planned and targeted research projects to small investigator-initiated efforts and from work in centralized locations such as the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to virtual collaborations organized through the Internet. Most federal research support is aimed at work done by U.S. scientists at U.S. facilities under the assumption that this is the best way to ensure that the benefits of the research are reaped at home. But expanded participation in international efforts could make it possible for the United States to benefit from research funded and performed elsewhere.
"U.S. policy currently lacks a strategy for encouraging and using global knowledge sourcing. Up until now, the size of the U.S. system has enabled it to thrive in relative isolation. Meanwhile, smaller scientifically advanced nations such as the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland have been forced by budgetary realities to seek collaborative opportunities and to update policies. ... An explicit U.S. strategy of global knowledge sourcing and collaboration would require restructuring of S&T policy to identify those areas where linking globally makes the most sense. The initial steps in that direction would include creating a government program to identify and track centers of research excellence around the globe, paying attention to science funding priorities in other countries so that U.S. spending avoids duplication and takes advantage of synergies, and supporting more research in which U.S. scientists work in collaboration with researchers in other countries."
"One recent example of movement in the direction of global knowledge sourcing is the U.S. government participation with other governments in the Interdisciplinary Program on Application Software toward Exascale Computing for Global Scale Issues. After the 2008 Group of 8 meeting of research directors in Kyoto, an agreement was reached to initiate a pilot collaboration in multilateral research. The participating agencies are the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Canadian National Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche, the German Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, and the United Kingdom Research Councils. These agencies will support competitive grants for collaborative research projects that are composed of researchers from at least three of the partner countries, a model similar to the one used by the European Commission. ..."
"Looking for the opportunity to collaborate with the best place in any field is prudent, since the expansion of research capacity around the globe seems likely to continue and it is extremely unlikely that the United States will dramatically increase its research funding and regain its dominance. Moreover, it may be that the marginal benefit of additional domestic research spending is not as great as the potential of tapping talent around the world. Thus, seeking and integrating knowledge from elsewhere is a very rational and efficient strategy, requiring global engagement and an accompanying shift in culture."