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Chinas growing strength in science has been a recurring theme in recent editions of the National Science Foundations biennial statistical compendium.

Max Braun/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Oddball scientists, the rise of Chinese research, and other highlights from NSF’s new tome of essential science statistics

Scientists discover something new every day. But science policy trends can take decades to reveal themselves. That’s why the bottom line in the newest edition of an indispensible statistical tome from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—that China continues to close the gap with the United States in the international race for scientific supremacy—will sound very familiar to those who follow these trends.

“The U.S. global share of [science and technology] activities is declining as other nations—especially China—continue to rise,” NSF officials declared yesterday in rolling out the 2018 Science & Engineering Indicators, a massive biennial report that tracks scientific activity around the world. “The U.S. still leads by many measures,” adds Maria Zuber, chair of the National Science Board in Alexandria, Virginia, NSF’s oversight body, “but our lead is decreasing in certain areas that are important to the country.”

Indicators has been documenting that narrowing over the past decade. In 2010, for example, NSF officials said they saw no end in sight to China’s large, decadelong investments in science. In 2012, agency officials talked about “the beginning of an Asian science zone” with China as the hub. So the new data on China’s scientific prowess—documenting its continued high levels of spending and growing workforce, publications, and commercial high-tech activities—are hardly surprising.

NSF’s careful tracking of China’s scientific coming-of-age illustrates both the value of Indicators and its limitations. The vast data trove is meant to help scholars, policymakers, and business leaders grapple with a slew of policy questions. They include: How should U.S. universities accustomed to attracting the best talent from around the world respond to the increased competition? Should government agencies require international partners on any large proposed facility and project? What types of rules should govern any commercial spinoffs from such collaborations? More fundamentally, China’s surge has forced U.S. officials to ask themselves whether their country’s scientific hegemony since the end of World War II is sustainable or, instead, merely a short-lived quirk of history.

There are no easy answers. And the NSF report assiduously avoids offering up its own analyses, much less any suggestions for dealing with these and other politically charged issues. “Indicators is factual and policy neutral,” NSF writes in the introduction to the online, 1065-page report, which is accompanied by a similarly voluminous appendix of tables. “It does not offer policy options, and it does not make policy recommendations.”

Less-than-perfect metrics

That just-the-facts approach has helped Indicators remain largely nonpartisan. But this year’s report, competing for attention in a world of fake news and science deniers, offers hints that NSF may see the need to do more than simply let the facts speak for themselves.

One clue is a new sidebar in the opening chapter, entitled “What Makes a Good Indicator?” A “good” indicator is a “direct measure” of a “policy-relevant” topic in enough detail to make “meaningful distinctions,” the article notes. But that’s not always possible, confess the authors, who go on to explain why NSF at times must use less-than-perfect metrics.

For example, U.S. policymakers would like to know how many people have the skills needed to fill the available jobs in science and engineering (S&E). Unfortunately, nobody has figured out a way to measure the skills of the current workforce. Instead, NSF uses as a proxy the number of people earning S&E degrees. However, in the real world, millions of people without S&E degrees are holding down S&E jobs. So degree production is, at best, an imperfect indicator of the available talent pool.

That’s not the only fly in the indicators’ ointment. Whereas workforce and degree data are collected by NSF, other data come from surveys by other organizations, including companies, other government agencies, or other entities. However, those surveys weren’t designed to be indicators, the report notes, and don’t always directly address the questions that policymakers might have. Still, the report explains, NSF uses them because the data are cheaper and available more quickly than if NSF collected them itself.

Combating a climate of doubt

Parts of Indicators track trends that only a true science wonk could love, such as the $272 billion in global payments made for the use of intellectual property—patents, trademarks, copyrights, and industrial processes. In contrast, its chapter on public attitudes toward science appeals to a much wider audience.

This year, NSF made two small, but potentially important, adjustments to its analyses of how the public views climate change and the researchers who work on this sensitive topic. The result is a much stronger statement on the scientific evidence for climate change.

In past years, NSF began the discussion by simply noting that climate change “is a central, and often divisive, environmental issue for many Americans.” This year, however, NSF extended that introductory sentence to include an assessment of the state of the science. Specifically, it noted that “the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that climate change is already occurring, that it will have a wide range of negative effects on Americans and residents of other countries, and that it is largely the result of human activities.”

Many Republicans in Congress would take issue with that three-part assessment, in particular, that climate change is harmful and human-induced. But the report is unequivocal. Several paragraphs later, it states that “many Americans do not appear to know that the vast majority of scientists believe there is solid evidence of climate change and that humans are the dominant cause.” In previous iterations of Indicators, the equivalent section simply noted that “only a small majority of Americans believe that scientists have reached a consensus on climate change.”

Are scientists odd and peculiar?

Polling finds that public perceptions of scientists shifted substantially between 1983 and 2016, with a majority of Americans now agreeing that scientists are “odd and peculiar.”

(Data) National Science Foundation; (Chart) J. You/Science

Are scientists “odd and peculiar”?

What the public thinks about scientists is often used as a metric for its attitude toward the scientific enterprise itself. To the extent that is true, this year’s report might give scientists pause.

As part of a general survey of the U.S. adult population, NSF has periodically asked them to agree or disagree with the statement “Scientists are apt to be odd and peculiar people.” And this time around, scientists received a record-high oddball quotient.

More than half of Americans—52%—agreed with the statement, up from 36% in 2012. In 2001 only 24% gave scientists such a label. Those with just a high school education—in other words, presumably less familiar with what scientists do—were especially leery, with 58% calling them odd and peculiar. But even among those with graduate or professional degrees, some 37% felt those labels were warranted. Similarly, only 37% of adults disagree with the idea that scientists are odd and peculiar, down from 63% in 2001.

Even so, U.S. scientists can find plenty in the 2018 edition of Indicators to feel good about. “Americans have high confidence in the scientific community … second only to the military,” the report reassures them. And those looking for reassurance can find succor in the first sentence of the voluminous report: “The United States holds a preeminent position in S&E in the world.”