Why Benchmark the Research Competitiveness of U.S. Chemistry Research Now?
The National Academies is periodically asked to assess the effectiveness of research investments in addressing national concerns. Research investments in turn affect the quality of research done. In 2000 the National Academies explored a new way of evaluating research leadership status through an international benchmarking exercise1 which compares the quality and impact of research in one country (or region) with world standards of excellence.
As Maxine Singer pointed out in the preface to that benchmarking exercise, “The American people, through their elected representatives, support the nation’s research enterprise in the expectation of substantial returns on their investment: a higher standard of living, a healthier society, an environmentally sustainable economy, and a strong national security. Knowing the power of research in addressing national objectives, the nation has committed itself to a broad set of investments to uphold its research capability.”
The pilot study of materials science, immunology, and mathematics was deemed successful in providing useful information to help inform science policy decisions in a rapid and low-cost way.
THE RISING ABOVE THE GATHERING STORM REPORT
More recently, the American people, Congress, and the President have had growing concerns about the competitiveness of the United States and
its ability to lead the world in innovation and job creation. As a result of concerns that a weakening of science and technology in the United States would inevitably degrade its social and economic conditions and erode the ability of its citizens to compete for high-quality jobs, Senators Lamar Alexander and Pete Domenici asked the National Academies to select a committee of experts from the scientific and technical community to assess the current situation, identify urgent challenges, and recommend specific steps to ensure that the United States maintains its leadership in science and engineering to compete successfully.
The resulting report,2 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. A very short summary of the conclusions from the executive summary of that report is given in Box 1-1. In the first chapter of that report, some alarming competitiveness indicators are described. Several of relevance to chemistry are given here in Box 1-2.
TIMELINESS OF BENCHMARKING CHEMISTRY
Building on the results of these two studies, in 2006 the National Academies embarked on an effort to benchmark the research competitiveness of the United States in chemistry. In addition to concerns about the overall competitiveness of the United States, there are compelling reasons to assess the standing of U.S. chemistry now. The field of chemistry is facing issues of identity and purpose at a time when it is expanding beyond its traditional core to include areas related to biology, materials science, and nanotechnology. Concerns about the pipeline of students, about the nature of future employment opportunities, and about the fundamental health of the discipline and industry are regular topics of discussion at meetings of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Council for Chemical Research (CCR) and have been the topic of such exercises as Chemical Vision 2020 and Chemical Enterprise 2015.3 Chemistry is facing a crucial time of change and is working to position itself to meet the needs of the future.
National Research Council, 2007, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
For more information about the CCR Chemical Vision 2020 technology road maps, see http://www.chemicalvision2020.org/techroadmaps.html. For the ACS Chemical Enterprise 2015 results, see http://chemistry.org/chemistryenterprise2015.html.
Conclusions from the Rising Above the Gathering Storm Report
“The [Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century] believes that its recommendations and the actions proposed to implement them merit serious consideration if we are to ensure that our nation continues to enjoy the jobs, security, and high standard of living that this and previous generations worked so hard to create. Although the committee was asked only to recommend actions that can be taken by the federal government, it is clear that related actions at the state and local levels are equally important for U.S. prosperity, as are actions taken by each American family. The United States faces an enormous challenge because of the disparity it faces in labor costs. Science and technology provide the opportunity to overcome that disparity by creating scientists and engineers with the ability to create entire new industries—much as has been done in the past.
“It is easy to be complacent about U.S. competitiveness and preeminence in science and technology. We have led the world for decades, and we continue to do so in many research fields today. But the world is changing rapidly, and our advantages are no longer unique. Some will argue that this is a problem for market forces to resolve—but that is exactly the concern. Market forces are already at work moving jobs to countries with less costly, often better educated, highly motivated workforces and friendlier tax policies.
“Without a renewed effort to bolster the foundations of our competitiveness, we can expect to lose our privileged position. For the first time in generations, the nation’s children could face poorer prospects than their parents and grandparents did. We owe our current prosperity, security, and good health to the investments of past generations, and we are obliged to renew those commitments in education, research, and innovation policies to ensure that the American people continue to benefit from the remarkable opportunities provided by the rapid development of the global economy and its not inconsiderable underpinning in science and technology.”
SOURCE: National Research Council, 2007, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
PANEL CHARGE AND RATIONALE
Before addressing questions of how chemistry must shift to meet future needs, it is imperative to understand its current health and international standing. 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 benchmark-
Some Competitiveness Indicators of Relevance to the Chemical Sciences as Noted in the Executive Summary of Rising Above the Gathering Storm
SOURCE: National Research Council, 2007, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
ing 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 consisting of 13 members, 12 from the United States and one from Switzerland, with expertise across the 11 selected areas covered in the report (to be discussed in Chapter 2), which are analytical, atmospheric, biological, chemical education, inorganic, macromolecules, materials and nanomaterials and nanoscience, nuclear/radiochemistry, organic, physical, and theory/computation. The panel was charged with addressing three specific questions:
What is the current position of U.S. chemistry research 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,4 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 literature, the opinions of their peers in the United States and abroad, 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), utilizing such sources as Thompson ISI Essential Science Indicators and 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.
The outline of this report is as follows: Chapter 2 of this report will provide background on the key characteristics of chemistry. Chapter 3 responds to the first question of the panel charge, and details the panel’s assessment of the current standing of the United States in the 11 areas of chemistry. Chapter 4 addresses the second question of the charge and identifies the key determinants of leadership in the field. Chapter 5 addresses the third part of the charge, assimilating past leadership determinants and current benchmarking results to predict U.S. leadership. Will the United States gain, maintain, or lose its competitive position? The panel’s predictions for each of the chemistry areas are also assessed.