Brussels, 13 Jul 2005
Fifty years of US global dominance in science and engineering (S&E) may be coming to an end as America's share of graduates in these fields stagnates, while S&E degree numbers soar in European and Asian universities.
Richard Freeman, from the National Bureau of Economic Research in Washington, has published a paper showing that changes in the global job market for S&E workers are eroding US dominance in this field. This diminishes the US's comparative advantage in high tech production and creates problems for American industry and workers in favour of the EU and Asian emerging economies.
The US has been the global leader in science and technology since World War II. With just 5 per cent of the world's population, it employs almost a third of science and engineering researchers, accounts for 40 per cent of research and development spending and publishes 35 per cent of science and engineering research papers.
The U.S. is the leading capitalist economy because it applies new knowledge in more sectors than any other country. But the roots of this lead may be eroding, Freeman warns.
The disproportionately high US share of the world's S&E workers in the latter half of the 20th century was due to historical reasons, he argues. Europe had dominated science before the War, but the exile of leading European scientists escaping from the Nazis followed by the slow post-World War II recovery of higher education and science in Europe on one hand, allied to the rapid expansion of mass college education in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, reversed this leadership.
UNESCO statistics show that, in 1970, US predominance was such that the country enrolled approximately 30% of tertiary level students in the world, whereas in 2000, the US enrolled just 14% of tertiary level students.
Since the 1970s, the rest of the world has begun to catch up with the US in higher education and particularly in educating S&E specialists. The number of students going to college has increased rapidly in other OECD countries and in many developing countries, particularly China. Several European countries (Netherlands, Norway, Finland, the United Kingdom, and France) exceeded the US ratio of enrolments in college or university per person aged 20-24 and/or the ratio of degrees granted per 24 year old.
Among doctorates -- key to advanced scientific research - the data are even more striking. In 2001, universities in the European Union granted 40 percent more science and engineering doctorates than the United States. And this figure is expected to reach nearly 100 percent by about 2010, the study says.
The U.S. job market for graduates in science and technology fields at all levels has weakened, and deteriorating opportunities and comparative wages for young science and engineering graduates discourage U.S. born students to these fields.
The effects of this trend are starting to be felt in the EU, and the fifty-year brain gain in the US might be coming to an end. European postdocs nowadays have better reasons to stay at home, according to a recent survey by Sigma Xi, as foreign postdocs in the US work longer hours and publish more than their American counterparts, but are paid less.
Current efforts at EU level to attract and keep the best researchers, for example the European charter for researchers and the action plan to reduce obstacles for world class scientists and their dependants wishing to move to and within the EU, can only accelerate this reversal.
Diminished comparative advantage in high-tech fields will create a long period of adjustment for US workers, of which the off-shoring of IT jobs to India, the growth of high-tech production in China, and the emergence multinational R&D facilities in developing countries, are harbingers.
To ease the adjustment to a less dominant position in science and engineering, the US will have to develop new labour market and R&D policies that build on existing strengths and develop new ways of benefiting from scientific and technological advances in other countries, concludes Freeman.
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Remarks: Does Globalization of the Scientific/Engineering Workforce Threaten U.S. Economic Leadership. Richard B. Freeman