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About Science and Engineering Indicators

Science and Engineering Indicators (Indicators) provides high-quality quantitative information on the U.S. and international science and engineering (S&E) enterprise. Indicators consists of detailed thematic or focus area reports, a state data tool, and a congressionally mandated report delivered biennially to the President and Congress that highlights important trends from across the focus areas. Indicators reports employ a variety of presentation styles—such as narrative text, data tables, and figures—to provide accessible data to consumers with different information needs.

The data described in Indicators are a quantitative summary of the scope, quality, and vitality of the S&E enterprise over time and within a global context. These data are intended to contribute to an understanding of the current environment and to inform the development of future policies. The reports do not model the dynamics of the S&E enterprise nor forecast future outcomes. Also, Indicators is factual and policy neutral. It does not offer policy options nor make policy recommendations. The National Science Board authors one or more companion pieces that draw on the data in Indicators to offer recommendations related to national S&E research or education policy, in keeping with the Board’s statutory responsibility to bring attention to such issues.

Indicators is prepared under the guidance of the National Science Board by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), a principal federal statistical agency within the National Science Foundation (NSF), Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate. NCSES develops the content and the dissemination platforms. Indicators reports are subject to extensive review by internal and external subject matter experts, federal agencies, National Science Board members, and NCSES statistical reviewers for accuracy, coverage, and balance.

Redesigned Indicators

Beginning with the 2020 edition, Indicators was redesigned to be maximally useful and accessible to a wide audience while maintaining the high quality of previous editions. It transformed from a single, voluminous report into a series of streamlined reports—focusing on key indicators and major findings—published on a rolling basis. Detailed data tables underlying the analyses continue to be available online. The National Science Board will deliver The State of U.S. Science and Engineering report, highlighting trends and comparisons from the Indicators thematic reports, to the President and Congress by January 2022 in fulfilment of the congressional mandate.

What Makes a Good Indicator?

The source data are “indicators,” that is, quantitative summary information on the scope, quality, and vitality of the S&E enterprise and its change over time. This section provides a brief overview of the type of high-quality domestic and international data sources used in the Indicators reports and data-quality issues that influence the interpretation and accuracy of the information presented. This section draws in part upon a review published by Bronwyn Hall and Adam Jaffe in 2017 called “Measuring Science, Technology and Innovation: A Review” in the Annals of Science and Technology, vol. 2, no. 1. For more details on methodological, statistical, and data-quality criteria please see the General Methodology or the Technical Appendix of a specific report.

A good indicator explains something meaningful about the state of U.S. S&E in its global setting and over time. Each report provides multiple indicators to inform different aspects of a topic. The data are used by a wide variety of people and organizations with differing views about which indicators are the most significant for their specific purposes. Because each indicator provides a partial measure of overall activity, multiple indicators facilitate a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of an issue.

A good indicator for the Indicators reports is policy relevant, contributing to an understanding of the current environment and informing the development of future policies. Indicators data are used by policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels. A good indicator is also policy neutral, providing objective, balanced, and accurate information. Indicators generally emphasizes neutral and factual descriptions using simple statistical tools and then invites the exploration of more sophisticated causal models and relationships by the research community.

When possible, the indicator is a direct measure of the intended concept, for example, the representation of different demographic groups in S&E jobs. In other cases, the intended concept is hard to measure directly and related or proxy indicators are the best available. For example, measurement of the capacity of the S&E workforce is difficult; Indicators therefore presents the number of S&E degrees earned as a proxy indicator of S&E workforce capacity.

Many of the indicators in the report are collected in surveys that are conducted by national statistical agencies in the United States and other countries. Well-constructed surveys align the questions asked of respondents to the concepts that the indicator is intended to measure and provide the detailed category breakdowns that are most relevant to data users. How well the survey-based indicator represents the intended population depends on how well the survey has been able to obtain responses from the targeted population. Indicators provides links to the surveys and data used in the reports so that interested readers can learn more about the precision or inherent variability of the data.

Some indicators used in the report come not from surveys but from data collected by companies, governments, and organizations as part of their ongoing internal activities; these data are administrative data. Patent and bibliometric data are two examples. Because the data collection was not originally intended to produce an indicator, these data may not fully correspond to the intended use for Indicators reports and may not fully represent the desired population. Good features of these kinds of data are that the respondent burden is low because the data already exist, data sets are large, and the data have been carefully structured, though generally for uses other than as an indicator. Additionally, these data are often available with a shorter delay than is possible with survey data production cycles. In these cases, transparency about the difference between the data-gathering concept and the actual data provides users a frame for the summarized administrative data as an indicator.

For use of international surveys and data, wherever possible, comparisons are presented using data that have been harmonized by international organizations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Nations, or have been prepared across countries using consistent standards.

Indicators Thematic Reports

Indicators includes the following thematic or focus area reports to comprehensively cover the S&E enterprise:

  • Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and STEM Education
  • Higher Education in Science and Engineering
  • The STEM Labor Force of Today: Scientists, Engineers, and Skilled Technical Workers
  • Research and Development: U.S. Trends and International Comparisons
  • Publications Output: U.S. and International Trends
  • Academic Research and Development
  • Invention, Knowledge Transfer, and Innovation
  • Production and Trade of Knowledge- and Technology-Intensive Industries
  • Science and Technology: Public Perceptions, Awareness, and Information Sources

A typical report consists of an executive summary, introduction (report overview and organization), a narrative synthesis of data and related contextual information, data tables and figures, conclusion, notes, glossary, and references. In addition, reports may contain one or more sidebars as part of the narrative text.

The State of U.S. Science and Engineering

The State of U.S. Science and Engineering report integrates and highlights information from Indicators thematic or focus area reports to draw attention to important trends and comparisons. It offers insights into the global landscape and presents broadly comparable data to examine indicators across regions, countries, and economies. It serves a general audience and introduces readers to the data resources available in the detailed thematic reports.

State Indicators Data Tool

The State Indicators data tool provides data to assess trends in S&E-related activities by state. Data are graphically displayed in detailed tables, U.S. maps that code states into quartiles, and histograms that show how state values are distributed. Users also have access to long-term trend data for each indicator and to metadata.

Access to Indicators

Although the Indicators reports and data tool are designed for the Web, the complete content of Indicators is available for download. Each report is downloadable as a PDF, and tables and source data for each figure are available in spreadsheet format. Figures are also available in presentation-style image files.