The United States still offers the world’s largest supply of scientists and engineers, but countries in East and Southeast Asia – most notably China – have “been catching up,” the National Science Board said in its annual “Science and Engineering Indicators” report, made public Thursday afternoon.
America’s lead is “distinct but decreasing,” the board said. China, it pointed out, “almost tripled its number [of researchers and science and engineering workers] since the mid-1990s.”
Meanwhile, from 2003 to 2012, China’s high-tech manufacturing sector grew fivefold, an increase that tripled its contributions to global high-tech manufacturing from 8 percent of the market to 24 percent in just nine years.
The United States, by comparison, made up 27 percent of the global total of high-tech manufacturing in 2012.
The rapid growth of China’s manufacturing sector came as it continued to spend lavishly on education and research-and-development in science and engineering – and as similar spending withered in North America and Western Europe in the wake of the market crash and Great Recession in late 2008.
“The global economic downturn had a significant impact on S&E [science and engineering]-related trends, especially in developed economies,” the report said. “During the downturn, economic activity involving S&E increased in the developing world, continuing the gradual shift in the world’s knowledge-based economic activity toward developing nations and away from developed ones.”
This increase, it continued, was especially “pronounced in Asia.”
Research-and-development spending in China, alone, rose from 2.2 percent of the global total in 2000 to 14.5 percent in 2011 – fueling a leap in East and Southeast Asia from 25 to 34 percent.
Similar spending in the United States fell from 37 percent to 30 percent of the global total, and spending in the European Union fell from 26 percent to 22 percent over the same period, in large measure due to decreased government, industry and university spending during the economic downturn.
Some of these trends, though, may change, the National Science Board said.
“Many of those developments appear to have been temporary, and there are signs of a return to pre-downturn patterns and trends,” the report said. “Nevertheless, the ongoing economic recovery has brought with it indications of emerging changes in S&E education and R&D.”
As the United States plays “a less dominant role in many areas” of science and engineering activity, the report cautioned, further “potentially disruptive developments” could be on the way.