The US May Soon Lose Its Place As The World Leader In Science


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist


December 1972: Astronaut Harrison H Schmitt, the lunar module pilot, is photographed next to the deployed United States flag during lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA) on the surface of the Moon. Eugene Cernan/NASA

The US might soon lose its crown as the uncontested world leader in science and engineering, with China continuing to double down on its growing investment into scientific research. That’s according to the 2020 State of US Science and Engineering report published this week by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Science Board (NSB). 

As per the report, the US still spends a hell of a lot on science. In 2017, the US spent around $548 billion on research and development (R&D), more than any other country and the European Union. R&D spending in the US also increased by an average of 4.3 percent per year from 2000 to 2017.


However, America’s slice of the pie is shrinking in the face of growing investment into science from elsewhere in the world. Globally, the amount of money being spent on R&D has tripled – and around a third of that investment has come from China. 

As it stands, the US accounted for 25 percent of the global amount of money spent on R&D in 2017, while China made up 23 percent. Based on their rate of growth, the report suggests that China is on track to soon become the world’s largest R&D performer. 

“Our latest report shows the continued spread of S&E [science and engineering] capacity across the globe, which is good for humanity because science is not a zero-sum game,” Diane Souvaine, Chair of the NSB, said in a statement“However, it also means that where once the US was the uncontested leader in S&E, we now are playing a less dominant role in many areas.”

The report also picked up some other emerging trends in the world of US science. For example, the data showed that the scientific workforce in the US has become notably more diverse. The number of women with science-based qualifications or working in scientific fields has doubled since 1995, while the number of underrepresented minorities – such as African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans – has increased nearly four-fold since 1993. 


Research has long been a bedrock of the US economy, fuelling innovation and giving the country a strong competitive edge, which has helped to produce much of the country’s GDP growth since World War Two. However, it’s important to remember that more scientific research worldwide is a benefit to everyone. The emergence of other science superpowers also holds the potential to bring new opportunities to the US and the wider community. 

“Research is now a truly global enterprise. Opportunities are everywhere and humanity’s collective knowledge is growing exponentially,” said Diane Souvaine. “To remain a leader, we need to tap into our American ‘can do’ spirit and recommit to strong partnerships among government, universities, and industry that have been the hallmarks of our success. I believe we should react with excitement, not fear, because we are well-positioned to compete, collaborate, and thrive.”


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