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The Sciences

Historians Foretell Our Demise as a Scientific Superpower

Reality BaseBy Melissa LafskyJuly 24, 2008 10:22 PM


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Given the grim economic climate and even grimmer forecasts for the future, it's not hard to predict that the U.S. will lose its status as the world's preeminent superpower. But will we fall behind in science as well? J. Rogers Hollingsworth, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, thinks so. He and a group of historians and sociologists think that the country's diminishing lead over other nations in science investment and research output mirrors the downfall of preceding science juggernauts like France, Germany and Britain. History, they say, is primed to repeat itself. In an essay in this week's issue of Nature, (subscription required) Hollingsworth and his co-authors argue that recent huge investments by the EU, China, Japan, Russia and India have leveled the international playing field in the sciences, leaving the U.S. teetering on the brink of losing the status it's held since the second World War. China in particular has moved from 15th in the world rankings in science and engineering production to second place, just in the last twelve years.

Hollingsworth isn't wrong; other countries are handing out more doctorates, publishing more papers, and funding more research than ever before, while we're floundering under budget constraints (and political agendas).

So should we pack up the labs at M.I.T. and CalTech and send everyone to Beijing? Not so fast, he argues, citing the fact that the U.S. is still major player, with American researchers accounting for more than half of the top 1 percent of the world's most-cited papers. Interestingly, he points out that the "publish or perish" attitude of major research universities may actually be squashing innovation—U.S. scientists are pumping out papers, but without a corresponding increase in "major breakthroughs." The solution, he says, is for U.S. scientists and universities to "

become more flexible and more adaptive"—advice that might do us all some good.

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