An Interview with Yu Xie and Alexandra Achen Killewald: Where Stands America in Science

Jun 18, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) You have just completed a book on math and science and America’s standing in the world. How did this come about?

I (Yu Xie) have a long-standing interest in the role of science and scientists in society. My dissertation was about the process of becoming a scientist, more than twenty years ago. But I never published it. I decided that now would be a good time to update my old analysis. I enlisted Sasha to help. As we talked, we realized that the interesting questions were much broader than just the process of becoming a scientist in contemporary America. There is now much discussion of whether American science is in decline. We wanted to write a book that addresses the question with empirical data.

2) In terms of “rankings” where DOES America stand, and who is doing the ranking?

American science still stands as number 1.  No question about it.  The United States is responsible for about a third of the world’s scientific publications, about half of the citations, and almost two-thirds of highly-cited publications. The United States is also a leader in applied science – almost 40% of patented new technology by the OECD comes from the United States. All of this is supported by an impressive higher education system. The US has 19 of the world’s top 20 universities, and 54 of the top 100.

3) The world, as the saying goes “has gone on-line” What implications does this have for the learning of science.?

Science is becoming more accessible to everyone.  This benefit is particularly large for students in less developed countries.  Of course, these technological developments also increase the demand for trained scientists, especially in fields like engineering and computer science, which have become increasingly lucrative fields compared to basic science.

4) Where did you get your data from, and what conclusions have you drawn?

Our research draws on data from government statistical agencies and social science data archives.  For the most part, we find that American science is healthy. Americans are supportive of science and scientists. Young adults continue to pursue scientific training, and women and racial minorities have increased their representation in science. However, we also find that scientists’ earnings have lost ground in recent decades compared to doctors’ and lawyers’. This may make science a less attractive profession for future young adults making career decisions. We also note that science is developing rapidly in other countries. American science will benefit from opportunities for increased collaboration with foreign scientists, but may also face competition.

5) Let’s talk B.A., then M.A., then doctoral level in terms of science. Have the number of degrees increased, decreased or stayed the same?

The production of science degrees has increased at all levels of post-secondary education. The growth has been particularly strong in the life sciences and mathematical sciences, which include students training for careers in health and computer science.

6) I have been to China and there is a clear emphasis there on technology. I have seen an ever greater emphasis in South Korea. Are these nations receiving more support from the government- or is it cultural?

Perhaps both.  Governments in East Asian countries are more involved (say in having nation-wide curricula and centralized strategies) in science and technology education.  There may also be cultural factors that encourage students in these countries to do well in science and math.

7) Science teachers in the elementary and middle schools typically say almost the same thing nationwide- lack of supplies- lack of materials. Can science be taught without microscopes, petri dishes and the like?

There is no doubt that inequality exists in access to quality science education. We find that students from less advantaged families are much less likely to complete four-year college degrees – typically a prerequisite for pursuing a scientific career. Our own research does not focus on methods of science education.

8) How have computers and educational software changed the way we teach science?

Our research does not address methods of scientific instruction.

9) Who funded this research?

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and various centers within the University of Michigan provided funding for this research. The Population Studies Center, where our research was housed, is supported by NIH.

10) What recommendations would you provide to the next President?

(1) One of the striking findings in our research is that there are very few differences by race or social origins in students’ likelihood of pursuing a scientific major, among those who graduate from college. But there are vast inequalities in the likelihood of completing a college degree. To recruit the best and brightest students to science, we need to improve access to higher education for all students, regardless of their background.

(2) Encouragement of and investment in both basic research and high-tech industries.

(3) Positive engagement with scientists abroad.

11) Communication between various nations seems to have increased. How will this impact future discoveries?

(1) We should expect a rise in international collaborations.

(2) The volume of scientific knowledge will also grow fast.

(3) The US will continue to be a leader in world science, but will share the stage with other countries.

12) Who has funded this book and your research?

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and various centers within the University of Michigan provided funding for this research.   The Population Studies Center, where our research was housed, is supported by NIH.

13) What questions have I neglected to ask?

None that we can think of.

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