Executive Summary

Key Takeaways

  • Global research and development (R&D) performance is concentrated in a few countries, with the United States performing the most (27% of global R&D in 2019), followed by China (22%), Japan (7%), Germany (6%), and South Korea (4%).
  • The global concentration of R&D performance continues to shift from the United States and Europe to countries in East-Southeast Asia and South Asia.
  • Many middle-income countries, such as China and India, are increasing science and engineering (S&E) publication, patenting activities, and knowledge- and technology-intensive (KTI) output, which has distributed science and technology (S&T) capabilities throughout the globe.
  • The proportion of total U.S. R&D funded by the U.S. government decreased from 31% in 2010 to an estimated 21% in 2019, even as the absolute amount of federally funded R&D increased.
  • The U.S. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) labor force represents 23% of the total U.S. labor force, involves workers at all educational levels, and includes higher proportions of men, Whites, Asians, and foreign-born workers than the proportions of these groups in the U.S. population.
  • Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented among students earning S&E degrees and among STEM workers with at least a bachelor’s degree. However, their share of STEM workers without a bachelor’s degree is similar to their share in the U.S. workforce.
  • Disparities in K–12 STEM education and student performance across demographic and socioeconomic categories and geographic regions are challenges to the U.S. STEM education system, as is the affordability of higher education.
  • The United States awards the most S&E doctorates worldwide. Among S&E doctorate students in the United States, a large proportion are international and over half of the doctorate degrees in the fields of economics, computer sciences, engineering, and mathematics and statistics are awarded to international students.

The State of U.S. Science and Engineering shows that strengthening the U.S. S&E enterprise is critical to maintaining the U.S. position as a lead performer and collaborator of S&T activities globally (see Glossary section for definition of terms used in this report). Currently, the United States leads the world on several S&E fronts. The successful development of COVID-19 vaccines demonstrates that the U.S. S&E enterprise is strong and can effectively collaborate internationally across sectors. Globally, the United States performed the most R&D ($656 billion, preliminary estimate) in 2019. However, the United States’ role as the world’s foremost performer of R&D is changing as Asia continues to increase its investments. Growth in R&D and S&T output by other countries, including China, outpaced that of the United States. Consequently, even as U.S. R&D has increased, the U.S. share of global R&D has declined, and the relative position of the United States in some S&T activities has either not changed or decreased even as absolute activities increased.

Globally and within the United States, the business sector both funds and performs the most R&D. However, in terms of share of total R&D funding, the federal government is the single largest funder of basic research (41%), followed by business (31%), nonfederal government and nonprofits (16%), and higher education (13%). The federal government also funds the greatest proportion of R&D performed by higher education institutions (50%). The proportion of U.S. R&D funded by the federal government has declined since 2010 in all sectors and in all research types—basic, applied, and experimental development. Because higher education institutions perform much of the nation’s basic research and because they provide advanced training in S&E that is needed by many KTI industries, declining shares of federal support for higher education could limit the ability of the United States both to perform R&D and to develop a sufficiently expert STEM workforce.

The U.S. STEM workforce, those who work in jobs that typically require S&E knowledge and skills, is large: 16 million workers with at least a bachelor’s degree and nearly 20 million workers in the skilled technical workforce (STW) who do not have a bachelor’s degree. The uneven representation of demographic groups in the STEM workforce indicates that there are opportunities to increase the STEM workforce with domestic talent—particularly at the bachelor’s degree level or higher.

Women and certain minority groups—Blacks, Hispanics, and Native American or Alaska Natives—are underrepresented in the STEM workforce relative to their proportion within the U.S. population. Women make up a greater proportion of the STEM workforce with at least a bachelor’s degree than of the STW. In contrast, the underrepresentation of persons from minority groups in the STEM workforce is largely driven by their underrepresentation among STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher. These groups are more represented in the STW.

The STEM workforce relies heavily on foreign-born individuals, who account for about one-fifth of the STEM workforce (and higher proportions in certain fields). Among foreign-born STEM workers with an S&E degree, about 50% are from Asia, with most from India or China. In addition, large proportions of computer and mathematical scientists at both the bachelor’s (25%) and doctorate (60%) degree levels were foreign-born STEM workers in 2019.

As an educator and collaborator, the United States facilitates the development of international S&T capability. U.S.-authored S&E articles are some of the most highly cited articles in the world. Additionally, 35% of the world’s S&E articles with authors from multiple countries have at least one U.S. author. Even with the reduced mobility resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, international students enrolled in S&E majors at U.S. higher education institutions exceeded 325,000 in 2020 (down from 406,000 the previous year). Most international students study engineering, economics, computer sciences, or mathematics and statistics.

Although the United States is internationally highly competitive in STEM education at the college level, U.S. students at the pre-college level performed only slightly above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average in science and below average in math. Inequality persists in K–12 educational outcomes by race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and U.S. region. The gap in STEM test scores is widest between Asian students at the top and Black students at the bottom. STEM teachers with less experience are more prevalent in schools with high minority enrollments or with high concentrations of students living in poverty or in schools in the South and West.

Regional differences are not unique to K–12 education. U.S. S&T capabilities, KTI industries (see Glossary section for definition of KTI industries), universities with high innovation activity, and the STEM labor force are concentrated in a few geographic areas. U.S. patenting activity is concentrated along the coasts and in parts of the Great Lakes region, Texas, and the Rocky Mountains, a distribution similar to that of STEM employment and KTI industry production. In addition, affordability of higher education also varies across states. Enabling all Americans to receive high-quality STEM education and to pursue any S&E field of study or career are critical components of sustaining and growing the U.S. STEM labor force. Addressing regional differences in the U.S. S&E enterprise, including access to institutions of higher education, may offer potential avenues for enabling the country to meet existing and new challenges, like those presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 substantially impacted the global economy, including the U.S. S&E enterprise. In the United States, the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing socioeconomic differences, such as a lack of access to computers and broadband at home for low-income and some minority students. The unemployment rate of STEM workers was lower than that of non-STEM workers, but women in STEM experienced higher unemployment than their male counterparts. Lack of access to technology for online learning was reported at higher rates for some minority groups. Enrollment at community colleges that serve low-income students declined sharply. The experience of the pandemic highlights challenges to the U.S. S&E enterprise, such as improving access to high-quality online education, while simultaneously showing the responsiveness of U.S. S&T capability in rapidly developing effective COVID-19 vaccines.