WHY BENCHMARK THE RESEARCH COMPETITIVENESS OF U.S. CHEMISTRY NOW?
The American people, Congress, and the President have growing concerns about U.S. competitiveness and this country’s ability to lead the world in innovation and job creation. A recent National Research Council report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, evaluated the present status of U.S. competitiveness and made specific recommendations for improvements.
In addition to concerns about overall U.S. competitiveness, there are compelling reasons to assess the standing of U.S. chemistry now. The field of chemistry is currently facing major issues of identity and purpose in a time when it is expanding beyond its traditional core toward areas related to biology, materials science, and nanotechnology. Chemistry is facing a crucial time of change and is struggling to position itself to meet the needs of the future. However, before addressing questions of how U.S. chemistry must shift to address future needs, it is imperative to understand its current health and international standing.
THE PANEL AND ITS CHARGE
At the request of the Department of Energy Basic Energy Sciences Chemical Sciences, Geosciences, and Biosciences Division, and the National Science Foundation Chemistry Division, the National Academies’ Board on
Chemical Sciences and Technology performed an international benchmarking exercise to determine the standing of the U.S. research enterprise in the field of chemistry relative to its international peers.
The field of chemistry was benchmarked by an ad hoc panel of 13 members, 12 from the United States and one from Switzerland, with expertise across the 11 selected areas covered in the report, which are analytical, atmospheric, biological, chemical education, inorganic, macromolecules, materials and nanoscience, nuclear/radiochemistry, organic, physical, and theory/computation. The panel was charged with addressing three questions:
What is the current position of U.S. chemistry relative to that of other regions or countries?
What key factors influence U.S. performance in chemistry?
On the basis of current trends in the United States and abroad, what will be the relative U.S. position in the near term and in the longer term?
Following a process similar to that established in Experiments in International Benchmarking of U.S. Research Fields,1 the panel was instructed to perform their charge in a short time frame and with a limited budget. The group met one time in person, and otherwise met via teleconference. Thus, in order to adequately respond to their charge, the panel had to limit the scope of the benchmarking exercise to assessing the state of basic (fundamental) chemistry research as determined by the open published literature, the opinions of their peers, and other sources of easily accessible information. This benchmarking exercise was conducted based on the premise that evaluating this type of more “academic” research information would give a good estimate of the quality and quantity of fundamental research being conducted, which could in turn be used as an indicator of competitiveness of the larger chemical enterprise. However, this exercise in no way presents a complete picture of the level of research activity of the enterprise—particularly the industrial component.
The quantitative and qualitative measures employed to compare U.S. chemistry with that in other nations included analysis of journal publications (numbers of papers, citations of papers, most cited papers, most cited authors, most accessed papers), largely derived from Thompson ISI Essential Science Indicators, as well as data provided by the American Chemical Society Publications Division. In addition, the panel asked leading experts
from the United States and abroad to identify the “best of the best” whom they would invite to an international conference in their subfield. The national makeup of these “virtual world congresses” provided qualitative information on leadership in chemistry. International prizes and congresses were also considered. The panel steered clear of distinguishing between academic, industrial, and governmental laboratory research performers; all of whom were considered in the exercise. Finally, the panel examined trends in the numbers of degrees, employment, and research funding of U.S. chemistry, relying heavily upon the NSF S&E Indicators 2006 and earlier years.
The resulting report details the status of U.S. competitiveness of research in chemistry and its subareas. This benchmarking exercise attempts to determine the current status of the discipline and to extrapolate the future status based on current trends. The report does not make judgments about the relative importance of leadership in each area or make recommendations on actions to be taken to ensure such leadership in the future.
WHAT IS CHEMISTRY RESEARCH?
Chemists view the world at the atomic and molecular levels. They relate the properties of all substances to the detailed composition and atomic arrangements of all the chemical components. Understanding how the properties and reactivity of substances are related to their molecular structures helps chemists design new molecules with desirable properties and allows them to invent new transformations to synthesize and manufacture the new substances. Chemists seek to discover the components of the chemical universe—from molecules to organized chemical systems, such as living cells and whole organisms—and to understand how these components interact and change. Synthetic chemists create and characterize new molecules and materials unknown in the natural world and develop the novel transformations needed to make them. Chemical scientists produce tangible benefits to society when they design and engineer useful substances, such as new pharmaceuticals and polymeric materials.
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR THE UNITED STATES TO LEAD IN CHEMISTRY RESEARCH?
Chemistry is both a central science and an enabling science. Chemistry plays a key role in conquering diseases, solving energy problems, ameliorating environmental problems, providing the discoveries that lead to new industries, and developing new materials for national defense and new technologies for homeland security.
KEY FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS
Today, chemistry research in the United States is stronger than in any other single country, but competition from Europe and Asia is rapidly increasing.
Evidence for current, but eroding, U.S. leadership in chemistry comes from analysis of publications, citations, highly cited papers and highly cited chemists, virtual congresses, and scientific awards.
In 2003 the United States published about 19 percent of the world’s chemistry papers, down from 23 percent in 1988. While the U.S. published a larger percentage of papers than any other single nation, this is about four percent less than the number of papers published in Western Europe. Although U.S. chemists have been publishing at a steady rate of about 15,000 chemistry papers per year, chemists from other nations are increasing their rate of publication, as determined by numbers of citations. U.S. chemists also lead in the quality of their publications. The total citations of U.S. chemistry papers between January 1996 and November 2006 accounted for about 28 percent of the world total as compared to 29 percent for the combined contribution of Germany, England, France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. The United States also leads in the number of citations per paper. U.S. chemists are the most prolific authors in high-profile journals such as Science Nature, and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. U.S. chemists contributed to 50 percent of the 100 most frequently cited chemistry papers, while Western Europe contributed 41 percent. Fifty percent of the world’s most frequently cited chemists are from the United States.
In a further effort to characterize the leading chemists in the world, the panel asked experts from the United States and abroad to identify the “best of the best” whom they would invite to an international conference in their subfield. The national makeup of these “virtual congresses” provides another indicator of U.S. leadership in chemistry by the strong predominance of U.S. speakers (50-70 percent) selected for virtual world congresses. (Caveat: When the organizer of the virtual congress was a U.S. chemist, about 15 percent more of the speakers were from the United States than when the organizer was not from the United States.)
Analysis of publications and virtual congresses showed that U.S. chemistry is particularly strong in emerging cross-disciplinary areas such as nanochemistry, biological chemistry, and materials chemistry.
A Combination of Factors Is Responsible for U.S. Research Leadership in Chemistry
Many factors influence U.S. research leadership in chemistry. One of the main factors is the national instinct to respond to external challenges,
to encourage innovation, and to compete for leadership. The wide range of funding sources for support of academic chemistry research (including industry, multiple federal agencies, state initiatives, universities, and private foundations) facilitates innovative research. Key characteristics of the U.S. scientific culture that underlie current and future leadership in chemistry research include cross-sector collaborations and international partnerships, strong professional societies, early full independence of investigators, and mobility across academic institutions. Major centers and facilities provide key infrastructure and capabilities for conducting research and have provided the foundation for U.S. leadership. There is increasingly strong competition for international scientists and engineers. The United States has maintained a steady supply of Ph.D. chemistry graduates by increasingly relying on foreign-born students. Over time the number of U.S. citizens pursuing chemistry Ph.D. degrees has declined. Research funding for chemistry has been steady, but an increasing percentage of support for U.S. chemistry research is coming from a single source, the National Institutes of Health.
Chemistry Research in the United States Is Projected to Remain Stronger in the Next Decade than in Any Other Single Country, but Competition Is Increasing
In the near future, U.S. chemistry will be the “leader” or “among world leaders” in all areas, but not in all subareas. Because of the advance of chemistry in other nations, competition is increasing; and the lead of U.S. chemistry will shrink. There will be increasing competition from our traditional European competitors, the expanding European Union, Japan, and other Asian countries, particularly China and India. U.S. leadership in chemistry publications will continue to diminish. As U.S. publication rates remain steady, the number and quality of papers from other countries are increasing.
U.S. Chemistry Will Be Particularly Strong in Emerging Areas
Areas such as nanoscience, biological chemistry, and materials chemistry continue to attract new investigators and funding initiatives. Even in these areas, the U.S. leadership position may erode due to growing competition. At the same time, the growth in applications-oriented research has been accompanied by a parallel decrease in funding for basic research in some fundamental core areas of physical, inorganic, and organic chemistry.
U.S. Chemistry Leadership Will Diminish in Core Areas
Core research areas, which underlie advances in emerging areas of science, are likely to continue to struggle for research support. Japan and Eu-
rope maintain more balanced support between core and emerging areas of chemistry. In some core subareas, such as main group chemistry and nuclear and radiochemistry, the U.S. position has already noticeably diminished based on publication and citation rates, and on virtual congress results.
The Sustainability of the Supply of U.S. Chemists May Be in Jeopardy
It is likely that the number of U.S. citizens receiving chemistry Ph.D.s will continue to decrease. At the same time, U.S. chemistry may find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain outstanding international graduate students and postdoctoral research associates as chemistry and opportunities in other nations improve. The U.S. will find it difficult (but not impossible) to increase the number of B.S. chemists and to improve the quality of K-12 math and science education to preserve the medium and long-term vibrancy of U.S. chemistry.
U.S. Funding of Chemistry Research and Infrastructure Will Remain Under Stress
U.S. funding of chemistry is projected to continue to barely keep up with inflation and to be concentrated in emerging and interdisciplinary areas. Core research areas of chemistry, which underlie advances in the emerging areas of science, will in all likelihood not be as well funded. Support available for the installation and operation of a diverse range of facilities to support leading-edge research in chemistry will be equally stretched thin.