U.S. Science is Lagging Internationally -- But How, Exactly?

Many countries are outpacing the United States in producing natural scientists and engineers -- but most are doing so because they're graduating more people, period, study finds.
January 15, 2009

They are among the numbers regularly cited to show the decline of American higher education and, by extension, the country's ability to innovate and compete internationally: the United States' slipping ranking among industrialized countries in the production of scientists and engineers. Depending on who is wielding the statistics and for what purpose, they are used to show that other countries are paying more attention to science and engineering than the U.S.; that the federal government should pour more money into research, development and education in those fields; or both.

But a new report from the National Science Foundation suggests that the numbers may mean something else entirely. The report does find that, in a marked change from 30 years earlier, most of the 23 developed countries had, by 2005, surpassed the United States in the ratio of degrees in the natural sciences and engineering awarded to the population of 20- to 24-year-olds. But that fact is attributable, the report found, more to growth in the number of university graduates the other countries produced than it is to their increased emphasis on science and engineering.

That may suggest another set of concerns about the U.S. education system -- as some critics see it, a lack of expansion of the country's capacity to educate its citizens -- but it challenges the perception that other countries have left the U.S. in the dust in the attention paid to science and technology.

"We wanted to address the question, 'Is it that other countries are emphasizing science and engineering, and we're not? Or is it something else?' " said Joan Burelli, the NSF analyst who co-wrote the report with Alan Rapoport, a recently retired colleague. "Alan was really curious."

The raw numbers -- which the researchers note they present cautiously, given wide variation in how and to whom the countries report their data -- invite the conclusion that the U.S. is lagging in producing graduates in the fields examined -- agricultural, biological, earth, atmospheric and ocean, physical and mathematical sciences, in addition to engineering. In 1975, only Japan had a higher ratio of natural science and engineering degrees compared to its population; by 2005, the U.S. trailed most of its peer countries, as seen in the table below: ( Note: The data in the table below have been corrected from an earlier version of the article.)

First University Degrees as Ratio of Population of 20- to 24-Year-Olds

  1975   2005
20- to 24-Year-
Natural Science and Engineering Degrees Awarded Ratio, Science Degrees to Population Population,
20- to 24-Year-
Olds (hundreds)
Natural Science and Engineering Degrees Awarded Ratio of Science Degrees to Population
Austria 5,160 726 0.14% 5,180 6,065 1.17%
Belgium 7,390 1,592 0.22% 6,330 6,533 1.03%
China 907,080 n/a n/a 1,008,930 715,720 0.71%
Denmark 3,750 1,550 0.41% 2,880 5,217 1.81%
Finland 4,210 2,656 0.63% 3,340 11,761 3.52%
France 42,470 16,702 0.39% 38,910 73,435 1.89%
Germany 55,500 31,056 0.56% 49,020 66,342 1.35%
Greece 6,390 2,808 0.44% 7,470 9,698 1.30%
India 566,790 117,718 0.21% 1,046,120 n/a n/a
Ireland 2,440 1,008 0.41% 3,410 4,839 1.42%
Italy 38,180 17,864 0.47% 31,160 73,265 2.35%
Japan 91,550 85,496 0.93% 75,420 133,206 1.77%
Netherlands 11,310 3,586 0.32% 9,610 15,070 1.57%
Norway 3,020 946 0.31% 2,740 3,559 1.30%
Portugal 7,350 n/a n/a 7,270 13,811 1.90%
Singapore 2,500 702 0.28% 2,650 5,556 2.10%
South Korea 30,880 13,063 0.42% 37,310 103,790 2.78%
Spain 25,590 9,171 0.36% 29,350 51,579 1.76%
Sweden 5,650 2,630 0.47% 5,270 12,630 2.40%
Switzerland 4,620 1,438 0.31% 4,480 5,338 1.19%
Taiwan 17,568 9,253 0.53% 18,645 78,131 4.19%
United Kingdom 38,810 22,650 0.58% 38,710 76,160 1.97%
United States 197,430 150,408 0.76% 210,410 235,619 1.12%

But not so fast.

The NSF researchers sought to examine what accounted for the changing ratios over time. Did they represent a change in the number of first university degrees, or a change in the share of overall degrees that were awarded in the natural sciences and engineering, or from the interaction between the two?

Using a set of mathematical formulas, they tried to gauge the extent to which the total change over time in the ratio of science degrees compared to the age cohort was attributable to overall growth in the completion of all university degrees or to the share of all degrees that are awarded in the natural sciences and engineering -- or to some combination of the two.

For the mathematically inclined among you, the table of their data can be found here. But to sum up their findings, they concluded that in the period from 1975 to 1990, 9 of the 21 countries for which data were available saw increases solely because of increases in the number of university degrees awarded, while in 11 cases, the two factors combined to create the change. (India was the lone country in which growth in the share of science degrees alone drove the change in ratio.)

From 1990 to 2005, 19 of 21 countries had higher population ratios of first university degrees in science and engineering than did the United States (China and Belgium were the exceptions). Of those 19, the change in 10 could be attributed solely to growth in the overall completion of university degrees. In the other nine, the university degree component was larger than the "science share component," but in six of those, the latter was a "substantial" factor.

"The primary explanation for the increase in the ratio of first university [natural science and engineering] degrees to the college-age population in most of the countries/economies examined was increased university degree completion relative to the college-age population," the researchers conclude. "Thus, the growth from 1975 to 2005 in the number of countries surpassing the United States in the ratio of NS&E degrees to the college-age population can be attributed primarily to increased university degree completion rather than to an increased emphasis on NS&E education."


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