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Asia closing in on US S&T leadership

Asian countries are quickly closing ranks on US global leadership in science and technology, according to trends cited in a report released by the National Science Board (NSB) on 18 January.

The 2012 Science and Engineering Indicators issued by NSB—the policymaking body of the National Science Foundation (NSF)—suggests that the US share of global research and development dropped from 38 per cent to 31 per cent between 1999 and 2009, during which time it grew from 24 per cent to 35 per cent in the Asia region.

Worldwide, NSB found that growing numbers of workers are engaged in research, and that growth has been especially marked in rapidly developing economies, such as South Korea and China, that have either recently joined the ranks of the world’s developed economies or are poised to do so.

Meanwhile, the board observed that mature developed economies in North America and Europe have maintained slower growth.

In China alone, from 2008-2009 R&D growth increased a “stunning” 28 per cent, allowing it to surpass Japan and reach second place behind the US, NSF explained in a statement announcing the report results.

The data also indicate a “substantial shift” in the balance between R&D employment by US firms abroad and R&D employment by foreign firms in the US, NSB said.

While R&D employment abroad by US multinational companies (MNCs) nearly doubled between 2004 and 2009, domestic R&D employment by these firms increased by less than 5 per cent in the same period.

Overall, US MNCs employed many more R&D workers in foreign locations in 2009 than foreign firms employed in the US, the report found, but these two numbers had been similar in 2004.

“This information clearly shows we must re-examine long-held assumptions about the global dominance of the American science and technology enterprise,” stated NSF’s director, Subra Suresh.

He said the country must “take seriously” new strategies for education, workforce development and innovation if the US is to retain international scientific and technological leadership.

“The United States has shown some recent signs of slower growth: little change in the number of trained workers in S&E occupations, an aging S&E workforce that is drawing nearer to retirement (though showing signs of delaying retirement to somewhat later ages), and a modest drop during the most recent recession in the proportion of foreign recipients of US advanced S&E degrees who join the US labor force,” the NSB concluded.

Yet the board noted that the US has remained an attractive destination for foreign workers with advanced S&E training.