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U.S. losing high-tech jobs, R&D dominance to Asia

U.S. companies are locating more of their research and development operations overseas, and Asian countries are rapidly increasing investments in their own science and technology economies, the National Science Board (NSB) reported this week.

While the U.S. remains the global leader in science and technology R&D, that lead is narrowing, asserts NSB, the policymaking body for the National Science Foundation. In particular, 10 countries in Asia -- China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand -- are closing ranks on U.S. leadership in science and technology.

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The U.S. share of global R&D expenditures dropped from 38% to 31% between 1999 and 2009, according to NSB's new report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. Meanwhile, global R&D share in the Asia region grew from 24% to 35% during the same time frame. Asia's rapid ascent has been driven largely by China, where R&D growth spiked 28% in 2008-2009, landing it in second place behind the U.S.

"This information clearly shows we must re-examine long-held assumptions about the global dominance of the American science and technology enterprise," said NSF Director Subra Suresh in a statement. "And we must take seriously new strategies for education, workforce development and innovation in order for the United States to retain its international leadership position."

The U.S. has launched a number of initiatives to remain competitive in global science and engineering -- such as the Obama administration's 2009 Strategy for American Innovation and, more recently, its 2011 Advanced Manufacturing Partnership -- but other governments are likewise motivated to develop their science and technology infrastructures, expand their higher education systems and stimulate indigenous R&D, the NSB report shows.

Among the findings in NSB's Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 report:

* U.S.-based multinational corporations are tapping a broader pool of overseas R&D talent. One indicator is the percentage of U.S. multinational corporations' total R&D that's conducted by their majority-owned overseas affiliates; over the past decade, that has risen from 13% to 16%. In addition, the number of overseas researchers employed by U.S. multinationals nearly doubled from 138,000 in 2004 to 267,000 in 2009. Meanwhile, multinational corporations' R&D employment in the U.S. rose more modestly from 716,000 to 739,000 during the same time period.

* Global R&D expenditures climbed from an estimated $522 billion in 1996 to approximately $1.3 trillion in 2009. Even though the U.S. percentage of global R&D expenditures fell, it remains by far the single largest R&D performing country, with an R&D expenditure of $400 billion in 2009.

* The U.S. accounts for only 4% of engineering degrees awarded globally, compared to China (34%), Japan (5%), and India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand (17% collectively). "The low U.S. share of global engineering degrees in recent years is striking; well above half of all such degrees are awarded in Asia," NSB writes in its report. At the doctorate level, natural science and engineering degrees from universities in China have more than tripled since 2000, to about 26,000 in 2008, exceeding the comparable number of natural science and engineering doctorates awarded in the U.S. [See also: "Should tech pros get an MBA?"] 

* By looking at the numbers of scientific and technical research articles published in a set of international, peer-reviewed journals, NSB concludes that researchers in the EU and the United States are losing their dominance in world article production. Their combined share of published articles decreased from 69% in 1995 to 58% in 2009, while Asia's world article share expanded from 14% to 24%.

* Collaborative research is becoming the norm. Based on the number of research articles with international co-authors, NSB found that collaboration across national boundaries is increasing. In 2009, 23% of the world's science and engineering articles had international co-authors, up from just 8% in 1988. The trend is even more pronounced in the world's major science and technology regions, where 27%-42% of 2009 articles had international co-authors.

* After peaking in 2000, the number of high-tech manufacturing jobs in the U.S. has declined by 28%, for a total loss of 687,000 jobs.

"Over the last decade, the world has changed dramatically," stated José-Marie Griffiths, chair of the NSB committee that oversaw production of the Indicators 2012 report. "It's now a world with very different actors who have made advancement in science and technology a top priority. And many of the troubling trends we're seeing are now very well established."

For its part, National Science Foundation has launched a number of initiatives intended to better position the U.S. globally through improved education and international collaborations. Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI) fosters interaction among scientists, engineers and educators around the globe, for instance, and the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program is designed to shepherd promising research out of university labs and into the commercial world.

"NSF's support of fundamental research, which propels intellectual curiosity in every branch of science and engineering, and ignites the passion to uncover the inner workings of nature, is more precious now than ever before," Suresh said.

Ann Bednarz covers IT careers, outsourcing and Internet culture for Network World. Follow Ann on Twitter @annbednarz and check out her blog, Occupational Hazards. Her email address is abednarz@nww.com.

Read more about infrastructure management in Network World's Infrastructure Management section.


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