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Some Key Takeaways From NSF's New "State of Science" Report

Highlights from the latest biennial survey of U.S. science and engineering in a global context.

This week the National Science Board and National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics released their biannual report, The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022. The report provides a wide-ranging overview of major trends and developments in the U.S. and globally. The full report is worth a read, but some quick takeaways are below.

The U.S. Continues to Lead in R&D Expenditure, While Its Lead Over China…Expands?

In recent years, there’s been widespread expectation that China, the second largest R&D funder in the world, will surpass the United States in total R&D in the very near future – as early as 2019, according to the National Science Board’s previous report. Yet the latest data indicates the gap between the U.S. and Chinese R&D spend has actually widened: as of 2019, the U.S. lead stands at $132 billion, whereas previous estimates suggested it was less than $100 billion.

So what happened? The simple answer (as we pointed out previously) is that prices are rising in China relative to the rest of the world, according to World Bank estimates. Adjusting for the higher costs in China effectively means R&D investment there doesn’t go quite as far as previously estimated, compared to U.S. investment. That said, Chinese R&D expenditures have still grown dramatically. In 2019, Chinese R&D grew by 13%, the largest of major economies. Chinese R&D intensity – or R&D as a share of GDP – also grew rapidly, nearly tripling between 2000 and 2019.

China is Less Focused on Basic Science, More Focused on Technology

While China and the United States are the two global R&D superpowers, they have somewhat different funding profiles. In the U.S., basic science – defined as inquiry to understand facts and phenomena – accounts for 17%, or $101 billion, of total expenditure, while Chinese basic science accounts for only 6% or $26 billion of their total. On the other hand, Chinese R&D is far more focused on development, which is about applying knowledge to create new products and processes, and which accounts for 83% of the Chinese R&D portfolio. The share of development in the U.S. portfolio is 64%. Of course, this aggregate focus on technology versus basic science has not stopped Chinese scientists from pursuing scientific excellence, or surpassing U.S. scientists in publication metrics in certain disciplines like physics or chemistry (more on publications below).

Domestic R&D Funder Composition Continues to Shift

The business sector has continued to increase their spending on R&D within the national portfolio, while the federal side has remained relatively stagnant after a decade of spending caps. As such, business R&D expenditure went from nearly double that of the federal government in 2010 to more than triple in 2019.

Within these shifting totals, the federal government remains the largest funder of basic research, providing 41% of basic research in 2019 compared to businesses’ 31%. Just as with overall R&D, the business share of basic science has grown dramatically: just a decade ago business funding of basic science only accounted for 22% of the total. These sectors approach basic science differently, however, as industrial basic science is also mostly performed by industrial scientists, whereas public research incorporates a broader performer base including universities and national labs, among others. In addition, there’s some evidence that federal and academic extramural investments may result in more novel discoveries, while industrial extramural research may seek greater technological continuity and iterative improvements.

Similar trends have occurred in applied science and, especially, developmental activities over time. To explore U.S. spending totals and intensity by sector and type of R&D, see the last two tabs of our historical dashboard.

Federal Support of Students Has Decreased

While the amount of funding that supports graduate students has not declined, the number of students supported has indeed declined, according to the new data: 15% of full-time science and engineering graduate students were covered in 2019, as opposed to 19% in 2010. This represents 70,462 students supported by federal funds in 2019, as compared to the 79,554 supported in 2010. While the percentages varied by field, engineering and biomedical science featured the highest concentration of federally funded students.

US Students’ Math Scores Stagnant

The scores of U.S. students in the international PISA survey offer a mixed bag: while the Science score of the average American 15-year-old has improved over the last ten years, the Math scores remain 25th out of the 37 OECD countries involved. Math scores have stagnated across demographic lines in the US, with Black, Hispanic and American Indian or Alaskan Native students continuing to lag behind. 

The lower math literacy scores mirror the dispersion of math and science teacher qualifications: teachers with less than 3 years of experience are predominantly found in high-minority or high-poverty schools.

Publication Excellence Plateauing

The NSB report provides an index of highly cited papers as a measure of research competitiveness, by scoring countries or regions based on the share of their respective scientific publications in the global 1%. The U.S.’ index score has remained fairly stable over the last 20 years at around 1.8, meaning American scientists published nearly twice as many highly cited articles as their publication output would suggest, indicating outsized influence and impact. While this ranks well among advanced economies, others have had theirs continue to increase over the last 20 years, with China’s share of highly cited papers rising sharply in the last decade. Despite the faults of publication quality metrics, this is another indicator of the rising prominence of overseas science.

Patenting Activity Continues Moving Out of High-Income Economies

Historically, high-income economies like the United States, Europe, and Japan dominated global patenting metrics, but this balance has been tipped toward middle-income economies – led almost entirely by China. According to the NSB figures, the high-income share of international patents dropped from 78% to 48% since 2010, while China’s share (49%) is, astonishingly, roughly even to all high-income patents combined.

An important caveat to NSB’s data is that not all patents are created equal. An alternate metric for comparing international IP is triadic patenting, which refers to patents for the same invention filed in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Because they require more time and effort than filing in a single jurisdiction, they may be of higher value than the “average” patent. Data on this metric is tracked by OECD, and the picture here is a bit different: as of 2019, Japan and the United States still rank first and second, while China ranks third with less than half as many triadic patents as the U.S. Still, China has seen meteoric growth in its triadic patents, with an order of magnitude increase since 2005.

U.S. Loses Dominance in Knowledge- and Technology- Intensive Manufacturing

Knowledge- and Technology- Intensive (KTI) Industries, defined as industries with high or medium-high R&D intensity, have more than doubled their output in the past 20 years, producing $9.2 trillion worldwide in 2019. U.S. KTI industries in both the services and manufacturing sectors have grown in the past decade, and the U.S. remains dominant in aerospace, medical equipment, and pharmaceuticals manufacturing as well as KTI service industries overall, but China surpassed the U.S. to become the leader in KTI manufacturing in 2011.


Matt Hourihan


Alessandra Zimmermann

Writer / Analyst