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Is American Science in Decline? Hardcover – Jun 11 2012


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A compelling book that rigorously answers all the parts of a deceptively simple question. (Michael Hout, University of California, Berkeley)

Opinion about the state of American science ranges from alarmist concerns that the enterprise is in imminent decline to the observation that there are many well-trained scientists with weak career prospects. Xie and Killewald bring a vast array of empirical evidence to bear on the issues. Their clear and concise analysis—and sometimes surprising findings—illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of the American scientific enterprise and, fortunately, lead to a nuanced, but essentially positive diagnosis of its health and prospects. (Robert M. Hauser, University of Wisconsin–Madison)

In the heated debate over the state of U.S. science, alarmists say there are too few young high-flyers; others, too many. Enter sociologists Yu Xie and Alexandra Killewald, whose nuanced view is backed up by able number-crunching. The United States, they found, is still a scientific superpower: the workforce has grown, and numbers of new graduates at all levels of higher education are rising. But the future is less certain: the number of US doctorate holders taking up academic posts is in decline and earnings are stagnant, for instance. (Nature 2012-07-12)

Xie and Killewald take a forensic look at who does science in the U.S. today, where they work and why. Their approach is thorough and systematic, and draws together a variety of available data, as well as offering some fresh analysis. This is a short book...It is also a useful one, providing a welcome corrective to the wailing and gnashing of teeth that too often accompanies this debate. (James Wilsdon Times Higher Education 2012-09-06)

About the Author

Yu Xie is Otis Dudley Duncan Distinguished University Professor of Sociology, Statistics, and Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Alexandra A. Killewald is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard University.


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A Qualified No. June 8 2014
By R. Albin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
An interesting and concise effort to address prevailing concerns about the status of American science. The authors use a series of large, particularly longitudinal, datasets to address questions about the status of American science relative to other nations, the state of American science education, the employment prospects of American scientists, changes in the nature of the scientific workforce, and public attitudes towards science. Overall, the authors present a relatively reassuring picture of American science. In terms of people entering science, public attitudes, employment prospects, and science education, there is little evidence of decline. In some areas which have attracted a lot of attention, notably primary and secondary school science education, the authors point to good evidence of rising performance of American students in some important respects. The authors identify some very interesting changes in the scientific workforce, many of which are well known to scientists, notably the increasingly large number of immigrant scientists and women scientists. As the authors note, its interesting that American science retains considerable prestige despite becoming increasingly populated by immigrants, minorities, and scientists. The authors identify some areas of concern. Salaries of scientists have fallen relative to other professions demanding extensive training, which could reduce recruitment of talented individuals into science. While there is arguably not the "glut" of scientists suggested by some, the existence of large numbers of subordinate post-docs and their often limited prospects, is a real problem. The authors recognize that there are potential problems with academic science, a small but crucial sector.

The authors' analyses have limitations. As they acknowledge, their analyses depend on the nature of the datasets they used and some qualitiative features may be overlooked. In some areas, for example, leadership has left the USA. High energy physics is an area traditionally led by the USA but now led by Europeans. The authors deal with public attitudes towards science, which they show as stable over decades but don't discuss a more important constituency, politicians. The bipartisan consensus of support for American science has eroded considerably in recent years, particularly among conservative-Republican lawmakers. The analysis of school education performance deals only with mean values, and doesn't discuss the spread of performance across the USA. Relative to our GDP, American performance is average and not that much worse than the best performers like Taiwan of Finland. The best performing American regions, like Massachusetts, perform right at the top, so the inevitable conclusion is that American performance is pulled down by poorly performing regions. While the authors' analysis of immigrant scientists is quite interesting, there is no mention of the major changes in immigration policy that changed the landscape in the mid-60s and makes comparison with prior periods difficult. Finally, this book was published in 2012 and is based on data accumulated earlier. The considerable stresses on American science of the past few years isn't covered.
There's more to science than HR May 8 2015
By A. Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Yu Xie and Alexandra Killewald have good news for Americans. They have concluded that American science is NOT in decline. Their glass is more than half full, even brimming. There's just one hitch. They really only looked at a small part of American science: mainly its human resources.

Graduates can be considered to be one output of America's science establishment, but there are actually a few others that might even be more important--like discoveries from research and innovations from development.   One can measure papers, patents, citations, prototypes and pilot plants, high-technology exports, and the investments that make these outputs possible. Those indicators of R&D are not nearly so favorable to the U.S. 

The authors' try to broaden their scope by citing a 2008 RAND report that largely based its findings on indicators from many years earlier. which I pointed out at the time.  When your competitors' indicators are increasing exponentially, it isn't wise to use old data.  Most notably, China has come out of nowhere with a skyrocketing challenge to the U.S. in many indicators of science and technology, as well as in business. This competition for market share extends to the placement of scientific papers in a fairly fixed number of slots in journals, explaining why American growth rates in publications tanked in recent years as they report in Chapter 2.

Revealingly, the authors divide those writing in this domain into two camps. They use the pejorative term "alarmist" to characterize those who think that American science is in decline, while they have no comparable term for the critics of the alarmists, like themselves. My thesaurus draws a blank for an antonym, but I might suggest "pollyannas."

To be fair, the authors have provided a competent analysis of the limited domain of science education and jobs for graduates, and they do also cover some surveys of Americans' attitude toward science.  The NSF survey always reports that the public loves what it's doing.  I wonder about that since so many of the American public seem to have swallowed a lot of denial propaganda about climate change, evolution, vaccines, and the age of the Earth.

I agree with the authors that there is no great shortage of American scientists--rather the opposite.  Pay for scientists in the U.S.  has not risen, as it would if there was really a shortage. Producing more would simply result in more underemployed post-docs.  Systems engineers would recognize this as a classic problem.  You have to find the bottleneck resource that is limiting overall performance of a system, since efforts to improve other resources will be wasted.  While I understand that the authors want to look at the U.S. alone, learning from our competitors' alternate universes can help with this identification.  My stats show that China is surging ahead of us because it has been increasing real R&D investment by over 15% per year compared to our 3% or less.  It takes money to do science today, and lots of it.  Thus the bottleneck resource in the American science enterprise is R&D funding, not human resources.  A book that is largely based on human resources can be a misleading guide to the question in its title.

An Alarmist


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