June 16, 2024

Is the U.S. Losing its Technical Edge?

The U.S. is losing its dominance in science and technology, according to William J. Broad’s article in the New York Times earlier this week. The article looked at the percentage of awards (such as Nobel Prizes in science), published papers, and issued U.S. patents that go to Americans, and found that the U.S. share had declined significantly.

Although the trend is real, the article does oversell it. For example, the graph that appears at the top shows the number of papers published in physics journals, by the author’s country of origin. Classifying based on country of origin undercounts American scientists, many of whom were born in other countries. Bear in mind, too, that the U.S. lead is smaller in mature fields like physics than it is in developing fields like computer science, so focusing mainly on mature fields will make the U.S. position look worse than it really is.

Yet even by more careful measures, the consensus seems to be that the overall U.S. lead is narrowing. What are the implications of this for Americans?

It all depends on whether you see science and technology as a zero-sum game. If you view science and technology as instruments of national power (both hard military power and soft cultural power), then technical advancement is a zero-sum game and what matters most is how we compare to other countries. But if you see science and technology as creating knowledge and prosperity that diffuse out to the population as a whole, then technical advancement is not a zero-sum game, and you should welcome the flow of knowledge across borders – in both directions. Both views have some validity.

The clash between these two views seems most extreme in immigration policy. As I noted above, immigration has been a big contributor to the quality of U.S. science. But now, more than any time I can remember, U.S. immigration policy is suspicious of foreigners, and especially those who want to work in technical fields. Regardless of the wisdom of this policy – and I think it is tilted too far toward suspicion – we have to recognize the price we pay by adopting it (not to mention the price paid by the overwhelming majority of would-be immigrants from whom we have nothing to fear). Overseas applications to U.S. graduate schools in computer science and other technical fields seem to have dropped sharply this year; and that’s a very bad sign.

I’m glad to see that the health of our technical communities is starting to become more of a national priority. In today’s climate, national competitiveness will be an increasingly effective argument against over-regulation of technology. And after nearly a decade of seeing parts of my technical field turned into legal and regulatory minefields, I would like nothing more than to have the tide turn so that policymakers think about how to make technologists’ jobs easier rather than harder.


  1. The article is measuring the wrong items. The conclusion it reaches is one I concur with, but for other reasons.

    1 – Research in the US is in decline.
    2 – Much research at the University level is performed by students and professors who came from other countries. We used to care more about what you know than who you know. Unfortuately, the US is becoming like the rest of the world: who you know is more important than what you can do or what you know.
    3 – Post 9/11 immigration policies are creating high obstacles for students.
    4 – US students can do the math and see that an MS or PhD is not a financially viable option. 20 years ago, when I was getting my bachelors, I did the math showing that staying in school to get my MS in Electrical Engineering would not pay for itself until I was retired. Any engineer worth their diploma could do the same calculations. The only post-bachelors degrees that appear to be worth anything in the marketplace are MBA, JD and MDs. 2/3 of all PhD candidates never get their degree, and of the ones that do, only around 1 in 10 get jobs in research or academia. Can anyone think of a rational reason why student loans are exempt from bankruptcy proceedings?
    5 – US corporations that used to perform research have mostly shut down their labs as “economically unviable.” Bye Bye Bell Labs. Say, so long to the rest. Other countries treat research as a national priority, we play games with tax credits.
    6 – US corporations that currently fund research tend to restrict the publication of results by the researchers. Supressing uncomfortable facts is not limited to the tobacco industry. Several of the companies I have worked for in the past 5 years have forbidden or restricted publishing articles. One even forbade letters to the editor.
    7 – The economic basis for teaching assistants and graduate assistants at the University level is one that encourages universities to exploit the TA/GAs. There are many articles (and blogs) which show that the primary hiring statistic for teaching freshman college classes is to have zero experience teaching. And your reward for gaining that experience is to lose your job. Over 20 years ago, having TAs in freshman and sophmore classes whose accent was impenetrable was very common.
    8 – Political and theocratic interference in research (and the education system) is driving some research out of the US. The US stopped being the leader of the world in reproductive research during the reagan years. The UK and Australia have surpassed us.

    People have been complaining that the US graduates more lawyers than engineers every year for the last 25 years.

  2. I think this is an interesting topic, because I’m not sure whether I believe that the U.S. is better off or worse off from the growth of technical capability centers abroad.

    The reason that I’m concerned is that I know that innovation in the technical fields benefits from a “cluster network”. This means that like-minded people talking about different ideas leads to better innovation. Microsoft has a cluster, Silicon Valley has a cluster, etc. When people talk about a “small world” they are referring to their cluster.

    When engineers in India, China, etc. become the leaders of innovation in the cluster, will Americans be allowed inside or will Americans have the ability to take advantage of the cluster? In some ways, Americans will be left out simply because they don’t speak the native language.

    Anyway … I don’t have any answers here. Just a concern that may be based on ignorance.

  3. Kinda OT…

    I think the reason behind America’s “falling behind” might be multifaceted. One, the country is still driven by greed for the most part. It would be interesting to see the statistics from the Woodrow Wilson School about the graduating seniors and where they are going. While a great deal of the best and brightest do go on to graduate school (and not a professional school), I would bet that a greater proportion of the best and brightest go on to banking, consulting, etc. The American Dream is rags to riches, not rags to publication.

    Secondly, I think there is a lack of challenge to the student. Now, I’m not saying this is true in all cases, but I have never had a teacher put a challenge directly to me. And perhaps this goes even deeper than the post, but I think there might be more interest in teaching the class than promoting individual intellectualism (for lack of a better phrase) and individual attention. Perhaps the motivation needs to come from the student.

    Anyhow, my two sleep-deprived, jet-lagged cents. And now, rereading the post, I realize it is rather OT. Back to the minefield that is software patent law.

  4. Mark Gritter says

    Oops, the first sentence should say “_should_ be encouraged”.

  5. Mark Gritter says

    Because I’m a technical person, I naturally wish that the U.S. takes the attitude that technical innovation shouldn’t be encouraged and not over-regulated.

    But I’ve occasionally wondered whether it actually makes economic sense to promote technical industries, if the U.S. is not actually all that good at them. If consumer electronics are primarily an import industry and movies are a big export industry, then wouldn’t it make sense to favor the latter in regulatory tradeoffs? (I believe that this scenario is not the case, but even so…)

  6. Tom J writes: “possibly taking spots from American nationals”

    They cannot “take spots” from American nationals unless the Americans were not competetent to gain the spot. The simple solution is that Americans should work harder in primary school instead of expecting a free ride when they get to college.

    Tom J writes: [a bunch of ad hominem attacks elided] yet somehow you don’t “feel welcome”.

    Well, gee, let’s see after contributing to the economy of the United States for 9 years, the US Government is now treating him (along with all other foreign nationals) as criminals and terrorists and taking away rights, forcing schools to become police and file reports on students using a computer system that has huge numbers of bugs. I am a US Citizen and I don’t feel safe or welcome in the US either! I guess I should go home… oh, wait, I already am!

    America – Love it enough to change it!!

  7. >Your attitude is selfish and ungrateful.

    I thought America was supposed to encourage people to do what’s best for themselves ?

    >You were allowed in the US, have been here for 9 years, kept employed or in school

    And you want him to work in America because he feels grateful for all that ?
    I guess that you’ve never changed employer, then, because you felt grateful for the training and the job they gave you when you first started work ?

  8. Tom,

    I was just illustrating my position and the position of many others that I know. I know that I’m selfish; if I wasn’t I’d go back to my home country after I get my grad degree. However, that’s what capitalism is about; you are free to give me a better offer than other countries are giving me. Right now, Canada offers me a better deal than the US, but considering that I’ve been here since 1995, it’s evident than when pressured hard enough, there are offers in the US that make me stay.

    As for Canada or Australia being more welcoming, consider the following: to get a work visa (this was prior to 9/11), I had to go through a year-long process of paperwork and $3000 in fees. All for a 3-year temporary work visa. The whole process was based on the subjective evaluation by the immigration officials. To get an immigration to Canada (lifelong residency), I have to pay a small fee and fill in a questionaire. In 3-6 months, I’ll be invited to an interview. The whole process is based on a point system, so I can be pretty confident whether I’ll get the visa or not, even before applying. So if I ever had to apply for a visa again, I won’t even think about the US.

    (As for the “superior financial benefits”, it’s a state school, so all of it is because of government funding.)

  9. Josef’s post is illuminating. It certainly is a problem if lot of foreign nationals are educated here, possibly taking spots from American nationals, and then leave.

    Josef, you think like a child and are throwing a tantrum. Your attitude is selfish and ungrateful. Go ahead, take your ball and go home.

    You were allowed in the US, have been here for 9 years, kept employed or in school, yet somehow you don’t “feel welcome”. Does the value expressed in “superior financial benefits” say nothing to you? Don’t the hoops you have to jump through to get to Canada or Australia make you feel similarly unwelcomes?

    As an aside . . . I wonder how many of the “superior financial benefits” of the US school are because of government funding?

  10. I agree with the immigration argument. Recently, I visited my old English as second language school, which is usually the first stop for people who want to study in the US. The class size dropped from 400 to slightly over 100 students, while the interest for studying there remained constant. Upon learning about the visa requirements, however, 75% of the students decided to go to Canada, the UK or Australia.

    I applied for grad school last year, and I’ll be starting this August. As a foreign national, even though holding a work visa in the US and living here for 9 years (first as a student then as a worker), I applied to only one US school, but to several schools in the UK, the Netherlands, Spain and Canada, mainly because of the US immigration policy. I have accepted the US offer, though, but only because of its superior financial benefits. However, I am still planing to apply to an immigration visa to Canada after I’m done, mainly because the US doesn’t make me feel welcome. And I’m not the only one. I’m pretty active in the foreign nationals community, and many others share my feelings. For us, the US is transforming into a place for studies and training, but not into a place where we’d apply our training. This is a brain drain that no statistics can see, as it’s a zero-sum game: we come, and we leave. But this brain drain is real, and will only get worse over time.

  11. michael says

    Whenever I read these kind of stories I always am amazed at how Americans think they need to be first in everything, and it becomes a national strategic initiative whenever someone else passes them up. Hegemony comes in many flavors…