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Featured Is the US abandoning its position as a science superpower?

  1. Mar 3, 2017 #1

    StatGuy2000

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    Hi everyone! I was reading another thread under Career Guidance and have found the following (credit from @Crass_Oscillator):

    "China is aggressively attempting to displace the US as the world's scientific superpower, and the US is aggressively attempting to abandon it's scientific superpower status, while Europe seems all but recovered from WWII. ...."

    My initial thought was that the statement above was an exaggeration (even taking into account the hostility exhibited by members of the recent Trump administration). According to the following Wikipedia article below, it doesn't appear as if the US is particularly sliding that far down in terms of scientific research funding.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_research_and_development_spending

    I was wondering how the rest of you on PF feels on this regard.
     
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  3. Mar 3, 2017 #2
    I have tunnel vision and am biased towards fundamental physics, so the enormous expenditures on applied experimental biology are worrying to me, since it's my view that biology advances are largely downstream of technological advances in applied physics, applied chemistry, and fundamental biology, which are downstream of fundamental physics and chemistry (although not always).

    The trouble with investing so much into biology is that the big problems I have worked on in biology all depend on advances in computing and our ability to measure biological systems. Theoretical biology, which is an everyday component of biology performed by the experimentalists themselves, largely consists of barely meaningful cartoons and caricatures of reality. We're fumbling in the dark. This fumbling can produce important advances such as the discovery of anti-biotics, but these are extremely crude methods, as evident by the forthcoming (alleged) superbug crisis.

    To measure and understand biological systems, you need simulations and experiments, which can barely obtain data on a single protein, much less tell you how its mechanism works. To say that simulating or measuring complex biological networks is in its infancy is to give it too much credit.

    However, if one does not have these objections to our current view of biological research, then my statements about US science being in retreat are completely false.
     
  4. Mar 5, 2017 #3

    ZapperZ

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    There are many anecdotal observations to point that, during the past 2 decades, there is a decline in "prestige" of physics funding and research in the US.

    1. For the first time in the history of high energy physics, the birthplace of high energy physics experiment has ZERO high energy physics colliders (RHIC and CEBAF are nuclear facilities).

    2. While Europe, China, and Japan are positioning themselves to host the next International Linear Collider, the US has been left as a spectator as HEP funding continues to decline.

    3. While it is almost unheard of 20 years ago of Chinese physicists leaving US academic positions, this is now occurring more often as China seek to entice its natural talent back with generous funding and programs.

    While we can argue that these are just anecdotal evidence, and while the US still leads the world in terms of total funding in science and engineering, there is a clear evidence that China, and even the rest of the world, are catching up very quickly as shown in the 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators.

    Various major world civilizations throughout history have had their rise and subsequent decline. I've said elsewhere that, maybe 100 years from now, when history looks back at world civilization, I will not be surprised if they point to this 20-year period that marked the beginning of the decline of the US civilization.

    Zz.
     
  5. Mar 5, 2017 #4

    StatGuy2000

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    I don't dispute that other nations around the world (in particular China, but also other Asian countries and other regions) are catching up to the US in terms of science funding and research, including physics research. And I don't necessarily see this as necessarily a bad thing, in so far as scientific advances and discoveries are a net positive for the entire world, not just a specific country.

    What I don't necessarily conclude from the above that this is necessarily an indicator of the decline of US civilization (or, more restrictively, the decline of US science), for the following reasons:

    1. The funding climate for science and technology in the US is not irreversible. While the current regime may not be particularly positively inclined for science funding, who can say what could happen in that realm in say, 4 or 8 years from now.

    2. I don't see research in science and technology elsewhere in the globe as a zero-sum game, where advances in one nation must come at the expense of another. One possibility would be an increasing emphasis for collaborative ventures between different nations. My speculation would be that American researchers interested in HEP could or would be increasingly collaborating with European, Chinese, or Japanese researchers.
     
  6. Mar 5, 2017 #5

    mfb

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    Science is getting more global. The number of authors per paper increases, and the number of different countries (of its authors) per paper increases as well. Big projects like modern particle physics colliders and their experiments cannot be built by a single country, you need the expertise from people all around the world.

    The US is still doing high-energy physics, for example. But they are doing this with colliders elsewhere in the world, like the LHC. The result? Most important meetings are in Europe. Most of the hardware is built in Europe. And most people in the field prefer jobs in Europe - why should you go to the US, where you are far away from the important meetings and where future funding is quite unclear?
    Fusion research has a similar situation with ITER (under construction) and Wendelstein 7-X in Europe and declining funding in the US.
    I guess climate science will follow.

    This can be reverted, but the timescale is longer than the timescale of damaging the field. To attract experts you need experts, and you need the research sites. Not directly US related, but I have seen this pattern with developing countries: They rarely have particle physics departments. Even if they are interested in establishing them: How? No one wants to go there because no one is there. Everyone interested in particle physics goes to other countries to learn from and work with the experts there. It is not impossible to establish a new group, but it is very challenging.
     
  7. Mar 5, 2017 #6
    You have a very ignorant view of biology.

    Biology is the most important science. Physics is not going to offer you much solace when you or a loved one is dying from cancer or some other curable disease. You may wish the world had spent more on biology research, and less on the LHC, if you one day find yourself wasting away in a hospital bed, wishing you were born a few decades later when a cure will inevitably be available.
     
  8. Mar 5, 2017 #7

    ZapperZ

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    No, I think this is an equally ignorant view of the benefits that you have already acquired out of HEP experiments.

    First of all, here in the US, the funding for NIH already dwarfs the funding for physics. So we are already funding significantly more on "biology".

    Secondly, look at ALL the diagnostics that are used in medical research and medicine. You will notice that EVERY single one of them originated out of physics. Did you think biology originated PET scans? Do x-ray devices came out of nowhere and landed in biology? Are the synchrotron research centers all around the world that did so many research work on proteins and biologial tissues came out of biology? Did the LCLS at SLAC that is being used to study drug compounds and living bacteria and viruses came out of the understanding of biology?

    And I haven't even gone into proton therapy and all the other direct medical applications of particle beams yet.

    Zz.
     
  9. Mar 5, 2017 #8
    I've wondered about this from a different perspective. I'm not a scientist nor am I in the US. I wonder if 'science' is very much a money thing. Why not outsource it? On the whole it seems potential homegrown scientists are being abandoned to things like intelligent design and if you cannot afford or your patents cannot afford or you are not exceptional you have much less chance to reach your potential in science. Science is becoming like a separate class or cast within which there is a continual struggle between 'getting funding' and adhering to principles. Perhaps what's being squeezed out at the other end is the commercial scientist and I don't think that's a good way to 'breed' future scientists. For some reason Fritz Lang's Metropolis comes to mind. So, perhaps yes to the question. Though in my mind when I think of science 'super powers' I think of Germany and Russia, or perhaps rather the old Soviet Union. I don't know what China's putting into basic education but I imagine intelligent design isn't part of it.
     
  10. Mar 5, 2017 #9

    Ygggdrasil

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    Obligatory XKCD reference:
    degree_off.png
    https://xkcd.com/1520/

    That said, as a biophysicist, I recognize the importance of fundamental physics research in helping to design the next set of tools to spark new discoveries in all different fields as well as train scientists to think quantitatively (something that is increasingly important in biology). However, it is also my opinion that many of the most important and interesting open scientific questions fall under the realm of biology.

    To answer the original question: science is expensive to do, so top scientists will go to where the money is. Currently, this is the US, not only for public funding of research, but also where most of the world's venture capital is as well for funding new start ups and other private sector ventures. This could change in the future depending on what happens to trends in the global economy, however.
     
  11. Mar 6, 2017 #10

    mheslep

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    As far as I can tell, China has only one science Nobel for work done in China (Tu YouYou 2015) as opposed to some other Chinese born laureates (Tsai, Yang, Lee, Kao) who did their work in the West.

    Where is the Chinese manned Moon landing? Twenty years out, in 2036? Where is the Chinese Space Telescope, open to use by the world's scientists? The Chinese human genome equivalent? Why didn't the South African Musk immigrate to China to build reusable boosters?

    Meanwhile:
    Chinese Students in America: 300,000 and Counting
     
  12. Mar 6, 2017 #11

    ZapperZ

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    You are missing the point, and not understanding the time scale for things to happen and bear fruit. That's like asking where is the olive oil after you've planted olive trees 5 years ago!

    A lot of the benefits that the US is enjoying now were seeded way back after WWII. The strong investments in science came from that time and all the way through the space/Moon projects and the Cold War. This is not something you can turn on and expect to get the benefits right away!

    The statistics on Chinese students in the US overlooked one very important thing. More than 20 years ago, this number was very small. But now, they are the largest percentage of foreign students in the US by a huge margin. And the overwhelming majority of them are going back to China and building their own programs there! Have you looked at the statistics on the number of physics papers Chinese authors have published over the past 10 years? Have you looked at the trend?

    There are going to be several major international physics experiments that will be hosted in China. Daya Bay opened a few years ago. There is at least one underground facility that is being built. And the ILC could easily end up in China. I can't think of any huge international scientific project that does not have a strong participation and collaboration from the Chinese. 20 or 30 years ago, this isn't true.

    In the meantime, back in the US, we scaled back FRIB and watered down LBNE because our priorities have been to blindly cut spending across the board.

    Zz.
     
  13. Mar 6, 2017 #12

    mheslep

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    Increasingly Chinese students studying abroad return home, but the majority obtaining U.S. advanced degrees in STEM remain.

     
  14. Mar 6, 2017 #13

    ZapperZ

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    And as I've stated, look at the TREND!

    I personally know of 2 Chinese colleagues who, many years ago, would be content and happy to hang on to their academic positions at well-known universities here in the US. But 5-8 years ago, they both left to go back to China and started their own research programs, and with substantial and sustained funding. They built experimental facilities there from scratch, and now, publications out of that group come up regularly.

    For many students, studying in the US and being able to gain employment here are still desirable. But the RATE of that happening has been dropping. And looking at the funding projection that I'm seeing now, I don't see the trend reversing. Couple that with the less-than-welcoming environment for immigrants in the US, it does not paint a rosy picture.

    Zz.
     
  15. Mar 6, 2017 #14

    mfb

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    In other words, the fraction going away increased by a factor 6-10. How many of those with a degree 2016 will still be in the US in 2024?
    With an increased fraction going back there is also an increased fraction of Chinese getting their education in China. It is not just a matter of going back. An increasing fraction doesn't even come to the US in the first place.

    Catching up always needs time, but China is certainly on the way.

    As you mentioned the moon landing: Where is the US rocket that can deliver humans to space?
     
  16. Mar 6, 2017 #15
    An article in Issues in Science and Technology "Is US Science in Decline?" this 2014 article explores this topic.

    It notes that historically science centers have changed periodically over the centuries from Italy to England to France to Germany to the US. because of the trend for such movement it was predicted that the US would be replace in 2000. Fortunately it did not occur. However changes are occurring and China appears to be making substantial headway toward replacing the US. From the article:

    This has been paying off in the quantity and quality of publications coming out of China:


    Like the free trade markets and globalized economies the US must share the opportunities in science with the rest of the world. And like the economy it does not have to be second rate.
     
  17. Mar 6, 2017 #16
    I'm a physics PhD student. I know well that most of the technology which has made the study of biology possible wouldn't exist without physics. That's obvious and doesn't need to be stated. That's like stating that physics couldn't be done without mathematics.

    However, much of physics research has diminishing returns. Spending billions on high-energy physics experiments has done how much good in the world? High energy physics is critical for building particle accelerators and all kinds of imaging techniques that are invaluable in other fields, but what has fundamental research in physics produced in the last several decades that is of real technological value, or helps us solve real problems in the world?

    Is studying dark-energy, dark-matter, string-theory, black hole entropy, gravity waves, neutrino oscillations doing anyone any good?

    I would prefer to see money spent on research that is going to solve real problems that need timely solutions.
     
  18. Mar 6, 2017 #17

    ZapperZ

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    Dial this back about 100 years, and you'd be asking the SAME question about research in quantum mechanics, etc. Did you think they saw anything there that "... solve real problems in the world"? It is extremely short-sighted to abandon basic research for pure knowledge of our universe because we can't see a practical application. History has shown us why it is important.

    http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2010/07/26/128784964/in-defense-of-basic-science

    But besides that, did you think that the HEP study on elementary particles had no real-world applications? Did our understanding of, say, muons not produced μSR? Or that it would be used for muon tomography? Or what about using antineutrinos for monitoring reactors? Did that come out of nowhere?

    It takes YEARS, even decades, for knowledge to find applications. 100 years from now, your comments that have been immortalized here on PF will be read by those people and, like us today looking 100 years back, will shake their heads and see why someone can be so short-sighted.

    Zz.
     
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2017
  19. Mar 6, 2017 #18

    Ygggdrasil

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    Someone correct me if I am wrong, but physicists were some of the pioneers in developing high-performance scientific computing resources so that they could analyze data from the high-energy physics experiments. These computing methods (and the "data scientists" they spawned) are now in the midst of revolutionizing the technology industry (the "big data" revolution).
     
  20. Mar 7, 2017 #19
    I'm not sure if China has anything like this yet.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/life-s...-api-faster-q-systems-computing-a7613271.html

    I remember a scene from the spy thriller movie Torn Curtain. The East German physicist is speaking with his young American counterpart. The East German points to his head and says something like "here is where the real work is done. The rest is for mechanics."

    Even though I have temporarily put my AI activities on hold, I still believe AI is the key technology. It is our brain amplifier. The thought of what we may be able to achieve in AI, once we have these quantum computers, is tremendously exciting.

    Apparently IBM is saying this is the time for companies to start developing software for quantum computers.
     
  21. Mar 7, 2017 #20
    I agree with you about the importance of biology. Specifically, I believe understanding how our body works, and being able to fix it, is the most important topic of all. But I wonder if LHC funding takes any significant funding away from biology. That's a question, not a statement. Maybe someone knows the figures.

    In any event, I don't think it's an either/or situation when it comes to science funding. We need physics, chemistry, and biology. Without physics research, we would not even have the X-ray, much less the more advanced scanners we have today.

    We really need to focus on how to reduce military spending world wide. If we humans ever advance beyond our war-making phase, and dedicate all that money and human effort to science, we might be able to figure out how to extend our lifetime indefinitely, instead of figuring out how to reduce it.
     
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