Skip to Main Content

Science & Technology

May 21, 2007
Volume 85, Number 21
pp. 34-37

The Prognosis For Chemistry

U.S. dominance is still strong, but growth in Europe and Asia augurs the flattening of chemistry worldwide

Michael Heylin

IT IS NOW OFFICIALLY documented and quantified: The U.S. is clearly number one in chemical research worldwide and will remain so for a decade or more. But the extent of the U.S.'s overall advantage is gradually shrinking and will continue to shrink in the face of rapidly growing chemical research activity overseas.

Although the U.S. will remain dominant in the emerging cross-disciplinary areas of biological chemistry, materials chemistry, and nanoscience, its decline will occur in some of the traditional core areas.

HOW TO READ THIS GRAPH: In 2003, 8% of the journal papers by U.S. scientists were in chemistry as were 25% of papers from China and 27% of papers from India. SOURCE: National Research Council report: "The Future of U.S. Chemistry Research: Benchmarks and Challenges"
GEOGRAPHY OF SCIENCE Breakdown of U.S. sciences in 2003 differs markedly from that of burgeoning science in China and India

Certainly, the U.S. chemical research community has important issues to confront. Over the past decade, the number of chemistry papers published by U.S. authors has not grown, and federal support for chemistry research has struggled to keep up with inflation. Also, the number of U.S. citizens earning chemistry Ph.D.s has long been declining, and there are concerns about the longer term sustainability of the chemical research workforce in the U.S.

These are the major findings of a National Research Council (NRC) study that had its unveiling at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Chicago in March (C&EN, April 2, page 13).

The study, titled "The Future of U.S. Chemistry Research: Benchmarks and Challenges," was conducted by a 13-person ad hoc panel chaired by Charles P. Casey, professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was ACS president in 2004. The panel, which included five women, was appointed by the National Academies' Board on Chemical Sciences & Technology.

The measures used by the panel to compare U.S. chemistry with chemistry in other nations include trends in the number of scientific papers published, data on the citation of papers, and the selection of speakers for hypothetical top-flight international scientific congresses. The report admits that this approach overemphasizes academic research relative to research done by industry or elsewhere but claims the study still provides a reasonable indicator of the quality and quantity of fundamental chemical research.

The three-part charge to the panel was as follows:

  • Assess the current position of U.S. chemistry relative to other nations and regions.
  • Identify the key factors that influence U.S. performance in chemistry.
  • On the basis of current trends, assess the relative position of U.S. chemistry research in the near and longer term.
Image Title

The report is of the just-the-facts variety. It makes no judgments or recommendations. But it does point out that chemistry currently has some difficulties with its identity and purpose at a time when it is expanding beyond its core. It states that "chemistry is facing a crucial time of change and is struggling to position itself to meet the needs of the future." Panel Chairman Casey tells C&EN he hopes U.S. chemists take the time to heed the study and ponder its findings.

THE NEW STUDY follows the 2006 NRC report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," which evaluated the state of U.S. competitiveness in general. This report pointed out that only one of 120 chemical plants costing $1 billion or more being built around the world is in the U.S., while 50 are in China. It also noted that the U.S.'s trade balance in high-technology manufactured goods fell from a positive $54 billion in 1990 to a negative $50 billion in 2001.

In stark terms, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" concluded that the U.S. faces an enormous challenge because of its relatively high labor costs and the reality that U.S. jobs are already moving to countries with less costly and often better educated and highly motivated workforces.

The report calls for the U.S. to renew the commitment to education, research, and innovation that has served it so well in the past. Failing to do so could leave U.S. children, for the first time in generations, facing poorer prospects than did their parents and grandparents.

The new report indicates that two important factors behind the strength of U.S. chemistry today are English being the dominant language of chemistry research and the dominance of ACS's journals.

It also points out that the U.S. chemical research effort, because of its sheer size, cannot be meaningfully compared with that of any other single nation. Comparisons need to be with regional groups of nations in Asia and Europe.

The U.S.'s instinct to respond to external challenges, to encourage innovation, and to compete for leadership are seen as other sources of U.S. supremacy in chemistry. Other contributing factors are good cross-sector collaborations, strong professional societies, the early full independence of investigators, and professional mobility across academic institutions.

The slow decline of the U.S.'s dominance of science and engineering has been under way for some time. The nation's share of all published science and engineering papers fell from 38% in 1988 to 30% in 2003. The parallel decline in chemistry papers was from 23% to 19%.

During the 15 years between 1988 and 2003, the number of U.S. science and engineering papers grew by 19%, according to Thomson Scientific, which, partly through its Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) operation, generates a wide variety of scientific and technical databases. This rate compares with 67% growth for Western Europe and about 150% for Asia.

Chemistry papers show a similar pattern. Between 1988 and 2003, the number of U.S. papers grew by 2,600 from 13,200 to 15,800, with very little growth since the early '90s. Papers from the rest of the world grew by a much larger 23,100 from 44,200 in 1988 to 67,300 in 2003.

The really big growth has been for Asia, other than Japan, with about 3,000 papers in 1988 and about 15,000 in 2003. The big contributors to this upsurge have been China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Authorship of papers published in ACS journals has also shifted in the same direction. U.S. papers fell from 64% of the total in 1988 to 43% in 2000 and 39% in 2005.

The study also points out that a relatively low 8% of all U.S. science and technology papers are in chemistry. This compares with about 12% of all papers worldwide and about 20% for all of Asia. The U.S.'s position may be due to its more diverse research portfolio and its emphasis on biomedical fields. The highly multidisciplinary nature of chemistry in the U.S. may also have something to do with it.

The U.S. still leads strongly in total chemistry paper citations and in citations per paper. While U.S. authors published about 18% of all chemistry papers over the past 10 years, they received 28% of the citations, according to ISI. The just over 3 million citations for the U.S. compare with 993,000 for Japan, 970,000 for Germany, 634,000 for the U.K., and 607,000 for France. The U.S.'s average of 13 citations per paper is substantially higher than averages of eight for Japan and about seven-and-a-half for Western Europe. U.S. authors also claim 50 of ISI's 100 most cited papers in chemistry for 1996-2006. Western European authors claim 41.

This U.S. dominance in citations is eroding slowly. U.S. authorship of the most frequently cited chemistry papers drifted down from 54% for 1990-94, to 49% for 1995-99, and 47% for 2000-06.

The U.S. also shows continued leadership on ISI's list of "hot" chemistry papers. For 2004-06, it claims 45% of them, compared with 38% for Western Europe and 5% for Japan. However, this U.S. dominance is not uniform. It varies from 59% of hot materials/nanotechnology papers to 21% of theoretical/computational chemistry papers. Hot papers are determined by the number of citations.

IN AN IMAGINATIVE effort to generate some new data, the panel divided the field of chemistry into 11 areas and further subdivided each into from two to seven subareas. It then asked eight to 10 world leaders in each subarea to imagine they were organizing—without any financial or other constraints—an international congress in their subarea and asked them to identify the 10 to 20 "best of the best" researchers they believed had to participate. A total of 349 scientists responded.

Overall, 60% of those invited to these hypothetic meetings in all the subareas were from the U.S. However, there was variation depending both on who was doing the selecting and on the topic.

When U.S. chemists were the organizers, 67% of the selected participants were from the U.S. When non-U.S. chemists were the organizers, U.S. participation fell to 47%.

By topic, U.S. participation was highest in materials/nanotechnology, biological chemistry, analytical chemistry, and atmospheric chemistry. It was lowest in nuclear chemistry and theoretical/computational chemistry.

The panel also examined the lists of invited speakers at some real scientific gatherings, mostly Gordon Research Conferences. For the conferences held in the U.S.—all Gordon Conferences—70% of the speakers were from the U.S. For the meetings outside the U.S., this representation dropped to 30%.

Casey says he is not too surprised by these U.S./non-U.S. differences. They may be quite large, but congress organizers have a natural tendency to select scientists with whom they are more familiar. Also, the differences do not mask the pervasive high standing of the U.S., he explains.

The panel finds that today, of the 11 areas of chemistry, the U.S. is the leader in five (analytical, biological, chemical education, inorganic, and materials/nanoscience). The U.S. is judged as the leader or among the leaders in two (macromolecular and physical). In three, it is placed as just among the leaders (atmospheric, organic, and theoretical/computational). And in one (nuclear/radiochemistry), it is rated as among the leaders or lagging.

The changes that the panel expects in the near future are all negative for the U.S. But they are also incremental.

The U.S. will retain its leadership in four of the five areas in which it is the leader today. In the fifth area, it will be "challenged." For the two areas in which it is the leader or among the leaders, it will remain among the leaders. For the three areas in which the U.S. is among the leaders, it will retain this status in two cases and have its position "challenged" in the third. And its position will also be "challenged" in the one area, in which it is now rated as among the leaders or lagging behind the leaders.

The report acknowledges that the relative standing of U.S. chemistry research in the future depends not only on what is happening overseas but also on internal factors. These include the national attitude toward research and innovation; research funding, which is shaky; the scientific infrastructure, which is good; and the availability of an adequately trained workforce.

Of these, the future of scientifically trained people power raises the most concern. The U.S. must attract and retain the brightest science and engineering students from home and abroad to retain its position in chemical research. This apparently won't be easy.

The study points out that the number of U.S. citizens earning Ph.D. degrees in chemistry will continue its long decline. At the same time, it will be increasingly difficult to continue to attract adequate numbers of graduate students and postdocs from overseas. According to the report, it will also be a challenge, but not impossible, for the U.S. to increase the number of bachelor-degree chemists.

Foreign-born doctoral graduates, most of whom still stay in the U.S., are vital to the U.S. overall scientific endeavor. In recent years, 34% of such graduates in the natural sciences have been foreign-born, as have 56% of engineering graduates.

In the longer term, the supply of chemists and other scientists depends on the state of K-12 education in this country, which is not great. Recent reports indicate that U.S. high school students perform less well in math and science than do students in other developed countries. Also, fewer U.S. students take up science. About six in 100 24-year-olds in the U.S. hold a degree in science or engineering. This compares with about eight in Japan, a little more than 10 in the U.K., 11 in France, and close to 13 in South Korea.

Enrollment of U.S. citizens and permanent residents in chemistry graduate programs has been on a slight but steady downward slope for the past 20 years-from 14,000 in 1984 to 13,000 in 2004. Modest growth in total enrollment of about 3,000-from 18,000 to 21,000-over the period is due to a doubling of the enrollment of those on temporary visas, from about 4,000, or just over 20%, in 1984 to 8,000, or almost 40%, in 2004.

Image Title

When it comes to the number of Ph.D. chemistry graduates, the big exodus from the ranks has been of male U.S. citizens and permanent residents. From a high of about 1,500 graduates per year in the 1970s, there were about 1,100 graduates in 1994 and about 800 in 2004. This loss from 1994 to 2004 is counterbalanced by a close to 400 gain for those on temporary visas-up from about 300 to about 700-and a small gain for female U.S. citizens.

THE BOTTOM LINE of the study is that chemistry research in the U.S. is strong overall. The U.S. will continue to be at least among the leaders in most areas and subareas. But the rate of growth of U.S. chemistry research will likely continue to be slower than that for chemical research outside the U.S. as China, India, other Asian nations, and Western European nations continue to expand and exploit their own scientific and chemical potential.

This will inevitably mean more competition as chemistry research continues to grow worldwide. It will be a long time before any single nation surpasses the U.S. across the broad spectrum of chemistry. But chemistry research by the nations of Western Europe combined is clearly competitive already; Asia, other than Japan, is becoming a real player; and Japan itself will remain a force.

Catherine C. Fenselau, professor at the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a member of the panel, tells C&EN she was surprised by the big change in the demographics of chemistry Ph.D. graduates, especially the extent of the decline in the number of U.S. citizens.

Fenselau tells C&EN she hopes chemists will read the report to understand better the status of chemistry and so get inspired to promote it as the central science that it is, to make it more popular and understandable to the public, and to give it more "pizzazz." And she thinks that "better salaries" remain the key to attracting enough bright people to careers in chemistry.

If U.S. chemists ever pass along the baton of world leadership to chemists in a group of nations or even a single nation, it will be a reminder that nothing lasts forever.

In 1953, Hungary crushed England's soccer team by six goals to three. It was the first home defeat for an English team since England began playing national teams from outside the British Isles in 1908. For proud England, the inventor and founder of modern soccer, it was a staggering blow. (I know; as a then-young Englishman, I grieved.)

But international soccer has since gone on to much greater things and all was not lost for England. It won the World Cup in 1966, made the quarter-finals four times since, and remains a competitive—if somewhat inconsistent—soccer power to this day.

One thing seems for sure from the NRC report: Chemistry will continue to evolve and grow worldwide, and the U.S. will continue to be a very important part of it.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

Related Stories

Adjust text size:

A- A+

Articles By Topic