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Science and Engineering Indicators 2006: The Rapidly Changing Global R&D Landscape

February 23, 2006

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Some Perspectives on U.S. and International S&T Growth 

The global changes taking place in science and technology are numerous.  Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 reports that international spending on research and development (R&D) is growing rapidly, noted by the statistic that from 1990-2003, R&D expenditures, adjusted for inflation, have grown worldwide from $377 billion to $810 billion.  The U.S. alone accounted for an estimated $292 billion in national R&D in 2003, and projected to rise to $312 billion in 2004.      

New international players are rapidly entering markets and are setting some high goals for themselves.  In recent days, China reported in the media an effort to double its science and technology investments in industry and its military, with added emphasis on basic research.  Already, China had reported R&D spending at almost $85 billion in 2003 a six-fold increase since 1991, and placing them third among the world's largest R&D nations.                  

China is keeping pace with the United States in the growth of its high technology production relative to its total manufacturing output.  From 1990 to 2003, S&E Indicators reveals that China tripled the percentage of its high-tech manufacturing component from 6 percent to 18 percent of its total output, while the United States raised its high-tech output from 12 percent to 30 percent of its total during the same period.  China also surpassed Japan during the period so that by 2003, China accounted for 12 percent of the world share in high-tech manufacturing.  Europe and Japan lost market share during the period. U.S. patent applications from the Asia-8 nations (South Korea, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand) are growing rapidly.  Traditionally active Japanese inventors continued to file at high rates in the early part of this century.  However, by 2003, the Asia-8 and China combined accounted for one-fifth of all foreign patent applicants, Indicators 2006 reports.  Meanwhile, these nations' scientific expertise has increased as well, with their share of published scientific articles rising from less than 4 percent of the world total in 1988 to 10 percent in 2003.

Science and engineering education and labor force

S&E Indicators 2006 cites a mixed result in the number of first university degrees. Overall, these degrees increased from 6.4 million to 8.7 million between 1997-2002.  However, concern persists over the continued low rate of U.S. first degrees in the natural science and engineering, while numbers rise substantially in Europe and Asia. Despite yearly declines recorded for four straight years in U.S. doctoral degrees in science and engineering, the numbers nudged upward in 2003, says Indicators, and enrollments in graduate S&E programs continued to climb even during a temporary sharp drop in foreign student visas following the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy.  Hitting a low point in 2003, student visas, too, have begun to recover.  And between 2003 and 2004, foreign graduate enrollments in S&E fields increased by about 2.4 percent. Foreign-born science and engineering students in 2003 earned one-third of all Ph.D.s awarded.  Even with the recent downturn in foreign students enrolling in graduate degree programs, those who do decide to finish advanced study in the United States overwhelmingly choose to stay in the country after earning their advanced degrees.  The stay rates for the 1998 group of Ph.D. awardees five years after receiving their degrees was higher than that for the 1993 cohort of new Ph.D.s still working in the United States five years afterward.                  

The conclusion about globalization

Indicators 2006 reveals that the "potential" often cited in past reports to describe global S&T competition is now real.  The new international landscape presents the United States with both challenges and opportunities. One challenge is how to best prepare and enable U.S. citizens to prosper in the future as the high-tech environment becomes more globally shared.  At the K-12 level, many questions remain about how the United States can keep up with the growth displayed by much of the world in technical skills and knowledge if students here continue to struggle against international peers in science and mathematics performance.  One of the opportunities of increasing worldwide scientific activity is increased collaboration and sharing among scientists of many nations, whose work can open many doors, to broaden knowledge and create innovations for the world's benefit. These opportunities benefit the United States because its robust and flexible collegiate education system empowers students to display a high level of creativity in their own research.  


The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2018, its budget is $7.8 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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