In ecological science, a keystone species is essential to the entire ecosystem. Weaken or remove a keystone and it impacts everything else. The National Science Board’s The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022 published today, shows that for the world’s science and engineering (S&E) ecosystem, the U.S. is such a keystone. The U.S. bridges nations and geographic regions, connects demographic groups and disciplines, and links sectors together. These connections germinate the next breakthrough discoveries, growing them from imagination to impact. As one example, analysis of coronavirus-related publications in 2020 shows the centrality of the U.S. to the global research effort and the strong collaboration between the U.S. and researchers around the world, most notably China and the United Kingdom.
“As more nations participate in science and engineering, collaborations become more vital” says NSB Chair Ellen Ochoa. “In addition, a strong U.S. presence reinforces the core values of open, transparent and ethical conduct of S&E research.”
“This report confirms the urgent need to accelerate and strengthen U.S. science and technology progress,” says NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “The U.S. National Science Foundation is bringing together its partners to empower our nation’s STEM talent and unleash the full power of U.S. innovation and competitiveness on the most complex challenges facing society.”
While it’s clear that the U.S. is a nexus of global S&E, the data also point to urgent problems. They include disparities in U.S. K-12 STEM education and student performance across demographic and socioeconomic categories and geographic regions, along with lack of affordability of higher education.
“Addressing the persistent educational inequities that exist across geography, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status is both an ethical and economic imperative for our country,” says Julia Phillips, Chair of NSB’s Science and Engineering Policy Committee.“To meet our workforce needs and ensure the U.S. remains globally competitive, we must break down the systemic barriers that too many Americans face and nurture the next generation of domestic STEM talent from K-12 through doctoral degrees.”
Elementary and secondary science and math education is the foundation for STEM knowledge, providing a pathway into S&E majors and subsequent careers. Access to experienced STEM teachers is an important factor in student performance. Indicatorsdata show that less experienced STEM teachers are more prevalent among the Southern and Western regions of the U.S. and in schools with high minority enrollment or high poverty rates, revealing geographic, socioeconomic, and racial or ethnic disparities in STEM education. Internationally, in mathematics literacy, the U.S. ranks 25th of 37 countries included in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This low U.S. international ranking in mathematics is consistent with the lack of improvement in U.S. student achievement for more than a decade. Compared to the majority of the nation’s largest S&E competitors, the U.S. places last in K-12 student science and math performance.
In higher education, financial barriers – particularly education-related debt – can be a significant obstacle to education and career advancement and contribute to Missing Millions in STEM. The average undergraduate charge at public four-year institutions as a percentage of disposable personal income increased from around 33% in the early 2000s to 41% in 2019.
In addition to developing domestic talent, America must also continue to welcome foreign talent, says Phillips.
“In degree fields that are vital to critical and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology, the U.S. must actively embrace equity in developing domestic talent,” says Phillips. “At the same time, America must continue to attract the talent from around the world that has long been – and will continue to be – essential to the U.S. economy and our S&E ecosystem.”
In computer science, mathematics, and engineering, nearly 60% of Ph.D. holders in the U.S. workforce are foreign-born.
“Ultimately,” says Phillips, “as a keystone of global S&E, the United States must be a place where all talent is given the opportunity, freedom, and resources to innovate, take risks, and collaborate. Our country must be a place where researchers can explore without knowing in advance what discoveries may result, but sure in the knowledge that the fruits of research will help solve societal challenges, deliver near-term innovations, and bring long-term benefits to Americans and all of humanity.”