The combination of costs arising from Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing war in Iraq are raising serious concerns among US scientists that the outlook for research funding in the immediate future could be bleak. These fears are compounded by the National Science Board's latest collation of trends in US science, engineering, and technology, Science and Engineering Indicators, which indicates that US R&D spending in 2002 declined for the first time in 50 years (mainly as a result of business R&D cutbacks in the wake of a general economic slowdown). Although the situation rallied in 2003, recent global events may set spending back once again.

The nature of the future scientific workforce is also called into question by the report. By 2012, according to the report, an additional 1.25 million science and engineering jobs will be required. But who will be suitable to fill these positions? The report raises serious concerns that US school education may not be up to the mark in training future generations for scientific careers. In an assessment of 15-year-olds from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, US students were ranked at or near the bottom in their use of mathematical and scientific knowledge. Another international assessment also found that US 17-year-olds perform below average. Employers looking for more and better skills in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology are likely, therefore, to look elsewhere for suitable candidates. Already, over half (58%) of postdoctoral positions in science and engineering are filled by non-US citizens. And the number of doctorates earned is growing fastest among temporary residents. However, this pipeline may be drying up as the enrollment of first-time, full-time graduate students fell in 2002-2003 in the wake of 9/11. As visa requirements tighten up (or become prohibitively difficult and time consuming), graduate students are looking to the UK, Germany, France, and Australia instead, where proportionally enrollment is growing. Meanwhile, the number of doctorates awarded in China, South Korea, and Japan continue to rise. Similar trends can be seen in the workplace: in 2003, 40% of science and engineering employees in the US with doctorates were foreign-born and in some disciplines, such as computer science and electrical engineering, this has risen to a majority.

Put into an international scene where, for example, the US continues to fall behind Israel, Sweden, Finland, Japan, and Iceland in terms of its R&D to gross domestic product ratio and in terms of its proportion of scientific publications, the situation becomes even more serious. If such indicators are anything to go by, then the European Union and Asia (in particular China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan) are in the ascendant. Could the US stranglehold on science be relaxing?

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(06)71424-9