DC on T2

Capitol Corner — January 19, 2018

DC-CapitolCorner

Published monthly as part of the FLC’s DC Perspective content, Capitol Corner focuses on one notable news item pertaining to the T2 community. The focus stems from agency publications, news sites, and DC-central organizations, with original sources, contacts, and links provided. For more information and Corner-related inquiries, please contact dcnews@federallabs.org.

Some fresh news from the Capitol for our inaugural outing of 2018: The National Science Board (NSB), the governing body of the National Science Foundation (NSF), published its Science and Engineering Indicators report yesterday. The annual digest compares U.S. science and technology (S&T) innovations and information with other nations. According to NSF Director France Córdova, the report “provides insights into how science and engineering (S&E) research and development (R&D) are tied to economic and workforce development, as well as STEM education.” The full report, available on the NSF website here, shows the U.S. is still the leader in research and development (R&D) initiatives and S&T investments.

However, as the report’s data suggests, other world powers—like China—are hot on America’s heels for the top spot. Maria Zuber, NSB Vice President of Research at MIT, believes such a change in the landscape might spell disaster for our national security. “It’s critical that we stay at the forefront of science to mitigate those risks,” Zuber opines. How can the U.S. mitigate this danger? Using Córdova’s championing of R&D investment as it relates to economic and workforce development and STEM education, let’s consider China’s place in the race.

1. R&D Investment Grows in Both America and China—But China Skyrockets

In December’s T2 Touchpoint, we reported that American R&D funding capped out at $497 billion at the federal level in 2016. But, let’s use the 2015 data point—$495 billion—going forward, as the Indicators report’s analysis ends at that year. Despite an upward slope in overall R&D spending, the United States experienced a decline in its overall share of the global R&D expenditure pool between 2000 and 2015, whereas China boomed. (For reference, the American share decreased from 37% to 26%, and the Chinese share increased from 25% to 40%.)

Another significant competitive factor in China’s favor relates to “R&D intensity,” which is defined as how large R&D expenditures are in proportion to a country’s gross domestic product (GDP). This phenomenon has contributed to the reduced American market share in R&D, as Asian countries have seen the largest spikes in intensity over the Indicator’s 15-year survey. South Korea, for example, has the largest intensity level of any studied country, with Japan being the other nation to rival the U.S. Although China hasn’t overtaken us in R&D intensity, it has seen the most upward mobility in this regard—surpassing the European Union’s own metrics by 2013.

2. S&E Workforce Numbers Continue to Rise in U.S., Surveyed Data Shows Rises in Asia

According to the Indicators report, nearly seven million workers are employed in S&E or S&E-related positions. (The report defines “S&E-related” positions as those not directly requiring a related bachelor’s degree or higher.) This number can be compared to about one million S&E-related jobs being filled in 1960. The growth can be attributed to the following factors:

  • Rising demand for S&E-related skills and occupations as technology advances
  • Increased number of S&E-related degrees earned by women and minorities, and other socioeconomic sectors since 1960
  • Permanent migration of foreign S&E-related workers
  • Later retirement-age clusters for S&E-related workers.

From a global perspective, S&E work is largely concentrated in R&D and related occupations. Although the report explains that global data is limited, data is gathered on researcher occupations in several Asian countries, including China, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD estimates the proportion of researchers in each country’s workforce, with 0.9% representing the U.S. and 0.2% in China. Although the Chinese metric seems rather small (considering the country’s substantial population), the OECD also reports that researchers’ share of the workforce has steadily increased since 2010, alongside American expansion in this sector since 2011.

3. STEM Education Continues to Be Monitored at the K-12 Level—China Slightly Outperforming U.S.

Fostering national R&D investment and S&E jobs starts in the classroom. Indicators uses two international assessments of K-12 students’ performances both at home and abroad. The 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has metrics on the average mathematics and science test scores between students at elementary (grade 4) and middle school (grade 8) ages.

  • American math students, when compared to those in Hong Kong at the same ages, received 2% lower scores in grade 4 and 3% lower scores in grade 8.
  • A similar story for American science: students received 8% lower scores in grade 4 and 3% lower scores in grade 8.

While the U.S. still is the current S&T leader, these educational metrics indicate one area for improvement necessary for continued American innovation and scientific advancement.

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