What does it mean to be a keystone of global Science and Engineering?

NSF Science and Engineering Indicators 20221 shows that no nation is the world leader in all aspects of science & engineering (S&E). Despite increases in the absolute amount of activity, the U.S. is at an inflection point as S&E is increasingly global, demand for STEM talent rises, and knowledge- and technology-intensive industries grow.

Gross Domestic Expenditures on R&D by selected country 2000-2019 (Figure 12)
  • Global research and development (R&D) performance is concentrated in a few countries, with the United States performing the most (27% of global R&D in 2019), followed by China (22%), Japan (7%), Germany (6%), and South Korea (4%).
  • The global concentration of R&D performance continues to shift from the United States and Europe to countries in East-Southeast Asia and South Asia.
  • Many middle-income countries, such as China and India, are increasing science and engineering publication, patenting activities, and knowledge- and technology-intensive output, which has distributed science and technology capabilities throughout the globe.
  • The proportion of total U.S. R&D funded by the U.S. government decreased from 31% in 2010 to an estimated 21% in 2019, even as the absolute amount of federally funded R&D increased.
Science & Engineering Doctoral Degress, by selected country 2000-2018 (Figure 5)
  • The United States awards the most S&E doctorates worldwide. Among S&E doctorate students in the United States, a large proportion are international and over half of the doctorate degrees in the fields of economics, computer sciences, engineering, and mathematics and statistics are awarded to international students.
Contribution to growth of worldwide R&D expenditures, by selected region, country, or economy 2000-2019 (Figure 13)

Since across-the-board leadership in Science and Engineering is no longer a possibility, National Science Board thinks2 the U.S. must become a “keystone”. What does it mean to be a keystone of global S&E? The key word is TALENT.

Talent is the treasure on which the nation’s prosperity, health, and security depend. To be a STEM powerhouse, the U.S. must nurture talent in every state and across the many dimensions of diversity, particularly the “Missing Millions.” For too long, too many Americans have encountered too many obstacles to pursuing education and careers in S&E. The U.S. must do better to provide opportunities for all.

What does it mean to be a keystone of global S&E? It means strengthening international collaborations and engagements, not withdrawing from them. It means being a dependable partner and responsibly fostering open exchanges of ideas and people across fields, public and private sectors, and borders. It means being a hub of the worldwide S&E talent flow. It means collaborating with like-minded countries to set the values, norms, and practices – the rules of the road – for research, and living those values ourselves.

Being a keystone nation means becoming an example of a truly inclusive enterprise that welcomes and nurtures all talent. It means doing the work to dismantle systemic barriers that too many have faced for too long. As policymakers and leaders of the U.S. S&E community, we must hold ourselves, and each other, accountable for progress in developing the next generation of diverse STEM talent. We must work together to set meaningful goals across the educational continuum – from K-12 through doctoral degrees. We must collect data that will allow the measurement of progress and we must be transparent by making the goals, data, and progress publicly available.

As a keystone nation, the United States must be the place where all talent is given the opportunity, freedom, and resources to innovate, take risks, and collaborate. A place where researchers can explore without knowing in advance what discoveries may result, but sure in the knowledge that the fruits of research will help solve societal challenges, deliver near-term innovations, and bring long-term benefits to Americans and all of humanity.

As it happens, words are superb. It is a praiseworthy objective. However, being open and inclusive when you are the leader is not the same as being open and inclusive when others lead.


(1) National Science Board, National Science Foundation. 2022. Science and Engineering Indicators 2022: The State of U.S. Science and Engineering.

(2) NSB Policy Brief: The U.S. is a Keystone of Global Science & Engineering.

Featured Image: The Gap in the Bridge. 10 December 1919 (There is something about the U.S. and keystones)

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