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Upturn for Science Doctorates

November 28, 2005

Amid a sea of statistics and dire warnings suggesting the decline of American science, a new National Science Foundation report offers some hopeful signs. The number of doctorates awarded in scientific and technical fields by universities in the United States rose in 2004, representing the second straight annual increase after several years of decline. And the increases were spread across many different disciplines, with fields such as mathematics, computer sciences and most engineering fields seeing significant growth.

The NSF report is drawn from the forthcoming Survey of Earned Doctorates for the 2004 academic year, an annual review conducted by the foundation's Division of Science Resources Statistics and five other federal agencies. 

Over all, according to the NSF report, the number of doctorates awarded by American universities increased to 42,155 in 2004, up by 3.4 percent from the 40,770 given out in 2003. Of the 2004 doctorates, 26,275 were in science and engineering fields, up 3.9 percent from 2003 and the largest number of science doctorates awarded since 1998. The 15,880 nonscience doctorates awarded in 2004 were the largest number in a decade.

Doctorates Awarded by American Universities, 1995 to 2004

Year Total doctorates awarded Science and engineering doctorates Non-science doctorates
1995 41,750 26,536 15,214
1996 42,439 27,241 15,198
1997 42,541 27,232 15,309
1998 42,647 27,278 15,369
1999 41,092 25,933 15,159
2000 41,365 25,966 15,399
2001 40,824 25,548 15,276
2002 39,989 24,588 15,401
2003 40,770 25,289 15,481
2004 42,155 26,275 15,880

The pool of those receiving doctorates in 2004 differed in some significant ways from those who received doctorates a decade earlier. In 1995, 61 percent of doctoral recipients were men, 32 percent were citizens of countries other than the United States, and 87 percent were white. In 2004, 55 percent were men, 33 percent were non-U.S. citizens, and 80 percent were white. Members of underrepresented minority groups made up 14 percent of the 2004 cohort, compared to 9 percent in 1995.

The NSF report says that it is too early to be certain that the two-year increase in the number of science doctorates awarded represents a new upward trend. But the statistics are likely to hearten science educators, business leaders, politicians and others nonetheless, given the significant concerns they've expressed about the country's ability to keep pace technologically with other countries. 

Doctorates Awarded by American Universities, 2000-4

Field 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
All fields 41,365 40,824 39,989 40,770 42,155
Science and engineering 25,966 25,548 24,588 25,289 26,275
--Science 20,645 20,043 19,512 20,011 20,499
----Agricultural sciences 1,038 975 1,009 1,061 1,046
----Biological sciences 5,854 5,691 5,690 5,697 5,937
----Computer sciences 859 826 807 865 949
----Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences 663 630 673 646 672
----Mathematics 1,050 1,007 918 994 1,075
----Physical sciences 3,407 3,394 3,212 3,325 3,353
-------Astronomy 185 186 144 168 165
-------Chemistry 1,989 1,981 1,923 2,041 1,987
-------Physics 1,204 1,197 1,127 1,080 1,186
-------Other physical sciences 29 30 18 36 15
----Psychology 3,618 3,442 3,199 3,281 3,336
----Social sciences 4,156 4,078 4,004 4,142 4,131
--Engineering 5,321 5,505 5,076 5,278 5,776
     ---Aeronautical/astronautical engineering 214 203 209 200 201
---Chemical engineering 725 729 705 648 723
---Civil engineering 556 594 626 674 675
---Electrical engineering 1,544 1,576 1,395 1,466 1,649
---Industrial engineering 176 206 230 213 217
---Materials/metallurgical engineering 451 497 396 474 509
---Mechanical engineering 864 953 827 814 853
---Other engineering 791 747 688 789 949
Non-science and engineering 15,399 15,276 15,401 15,481 15,880
--Education 6,430 6,337 6,487 6,632 6,635
--Health 1,592 1,622 1,653 1,636 1,730
--Humanities 5,213 5,161 5,010 5,015 5,017
--Professional/other 2,164 2,156 2,251 2,198 2,498

Source: National Science Foundation

If the NSF report hints at some positive developments for American science, it also contains some data certain to trouble those concerned about the country's standing vis a vis other countries. It shows that in several key fields -- computer sciences, mathematics, physics and engineering -- more than half of the doctorates awarded in 2004 were given to non-U.S. citizens. The proportion was above 40 percent in agricultural sciences, chemistry, the physical sciences as a whole, and total science and engineering doctorates.

Doctorates Awarded to non-U.S. Citizens by Field of Study, 2004

Field Percent
All fields 33.2%
Science and engineering 40.7%
Science 34.0%
Agricultural sciences 46.0%
Biological sciences 30.0%
Computer sciences 56.1%
Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences 37.4%
Mathematics 56.1%
Physical sciences 45.6%
Astronomy 30.2%
Chemistry 41.6%
Physics 54.7%
Other physical sciences 33.3%
Psychology 8.5%
Social sciences 35.1%
Engineering 64.6%
Non-science and engineering 20.4%
Professional/other/unknown 38.0%
Humanities 20.1%
Health 26.8%
Education 12.2%

 

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