also may have been influenced by the increases in research assistantship funding for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars during the middle to late 1990s, led by a rapid increase in the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).17 The current decline, on the other hand, coincides with an economic recession and could be interpreted as a return from an unsustainable peak to a point on a long-term curve that had been rising steadily for many years.

A second possible interpretation is that the recent 3-year decline is the beginning of a long-term downward trend. It may be too early to justify that interpretation or to decide whether such a trend is a sign of weakening in US S&E. For example, there is no evidence yet that the quality of graduate students or the staffing levels in laboratories has suffered. S&E populations have always fluctuated and in ways that are seldom expected; it may simply be too early to discern the causes of the recent decline.18

Decline in Students Taking Proficiency Exams

Another factor to consider is the decline in international students taking graduate-school entrance exams (see Figure 1-7). Often seen as early indicators of student intentions, these numbers, too, have been declining recently. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers several leading proficiency examinations for students, reports declines in the volumes of international students using its products. For example, the number of TOEFLs (tests of English as a foreign language) administered to students applying to US graduate schools has declined from a peak in 2002. In addition, the number of Graduate Record Examinations (GREs) taken by international students dropped last year. In India and China, the two largest-volume countries, the number of GRE test-takers fell by about 50 percent from 2003 to 2004. One interpretation of the decline is that fewer international students want to study in the United States. However, the decline in TOEFL volumes is likely to have been influenced by increasing competition from the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). The volume of IELTS users increased from 75,000 in 1997 to 475,000 in 2003,19 especially as some countries with growing higher-edu-


The NIH budget doubled from $13.6 billion in FY 1998 to $27.3 billion in FY 2003.


One review of the NIH budget concluded that the dramatic growth of its budget did not result in an increase in new US doctorates or in the number of US citizens in postdoctoral appointments even while the number of international postdoctoral scholars was rising. Howard H. Garrison, Susan A. Gerbi, and Paul W. Kincade. 2003. “In an era of scientific opportunity, are there opportunities for biomedical scientists?” FASEB Journal 17:2169-2173.


IELTS 2003 Annual Review, available at

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement