National Science Board Reflects on Role in Spotlighting China’s R&D Rise

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Publication date: 
15 May 2018

With several members departing and new leadership incoming, the National Science Board used much of its May meeting to reflect on how it has ramped up its engagement on policy matters in recent years. One focus of discussion was how the board has increasingly drawn attention to the emergence of China as a global leader in science and engineering.

During its second meeting of the year on May 2 and 3, the National Science Board reflected on how it has worked in recent years to reinvigorate its dual mission of overseeing the National Science Foundation and advising policymakers and the public. The board is in a period of transition since the terms of eight of its 24 presidentially appointed members expired on May 10 — including that of Maria Zuber, who has been its chair since 2016. It elected Diane Souvaine, the board’s vice chair and a computer science professor at Tufts University, to take Zuber’s place.


National Science Board

The National Science Board elected Tufts University computer scientist Diane Souvaine, front row second from left, as chair for the 2018-2020 term at its May meeting. Souvaine replaces MIT planetary scientist Maria Zuber, front row fourth from left, who became chair in 2016.

(Image credit – NSB)

Board reflects on reception of latest Science & Engineering Indicators

One focus of discussion was the board’s efforts to increase attention to their Science and Engineering Indicators, a biennial tome of statistics and analyses on the U.S. and global S&E enterprise.

The board has worked to make the S&E Indicators more digestible and actionable by producing policy-relevant companion statements and reports. These range from a one-sentence statement predicting China could pass the U.S. in total R&D spending by the end of 2018 to a policy brief on “Building a STEM-Capable U.S. Workforce.” It has also produced one-pagers that highlight state-by-state trends and the rise of China in science and engineering.

Members observed that the 2018 edition of S&E Indicators garnered more attention than any other in recent memory, having been widely covered in the media and cited in the latest appropriations law as part of Congress's justification for increasing NSF’s budget. They attributed this attention to their expanded outreach efforts and the widespread interest in the China trends depicted in the report.

The board also discussed their plans to develop another companion brief on “the state of the U.S. science enterprise in a global context” and deliberated how best to approach the subject at a tense time in U.S.–China relations.

Members consider potential pitfalls of policy statements

Robert Groves, a statistician at Georgetown University, expressed concern that a simplistic depiction of the U.S.’s position relative to other countries does not convey the importance of international collaboration in science. He remarked,

I’m worried about naïve readers having only the frame of nation-state competition as they consume this information. And so I put a plug in for some content in this report that speaks to how the scientific enterprise is global already. I’m afraid without that, this could be used in harmful ways. … Look at the debate we’re having right now about inter-nation trade and how much more complex that issue is than just winners and losers.

Although the graph of China’s rising R&D investment is “seared” in board members’ minds, he said, “It’s just one chart, and it’s much more complicated than that.”

John Anderson, a chemical engineering professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said the board should describe how the U.S. benefits from interacting with a global S&E enterprise and argue that, just like in trade, the situation is not a “zero-sum game.” He also cautioned against relying on altruistic arguments because “taxpayers want to support things that are going to help the United States.”

Peter LePage, a physics professor at Cornell University, remarked, “When I look at a big increase in funding for science from China I think, ‘Wow that’s great, a lot more science.’” The true threat, he argued, is if the U.S. cedes its seat at the table as a global research player.

Groves later elaborated on his concerns, citing underinvestment by the U.S. in skilled teaching at the K–12 level. “We got away with a decayed K12 STEM [education system] because we had great higher education and we brought in people from other countries,” he said. He added that he worries of a potential “double whammy” effect of scientific talent from other countries staying away from the U.S. at a time when the nation’s K–12 system is incapable of producing the necessary STEM workforce.

White House plans for new appointments unclear

At the end of the meeting, the board announced it had elected Souvaine as chair and Ellen Ochoa as vice chair for the next two years. Ochoa, who is retiring as director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center later this month, joined the board in 2017. Members also expressed hope that President Trump would reappoint the members who are still interested in serving.

The president appoints members to the board for six-year terms. The appointments previously were subject to Senate confirmation until Congress removed that requirement in 2012. Terms are staggered so that one-third of its members depart every two years, although their terms can be extended.

During a farewell ceremony for the departing members, NSF Director France Córdova said, “We really hope that you’re reupped and that you can continue with us because we would just love to have your very good minds, your energy, your talent, all of it still continuing with us.”

Vint Cerf, a vice president at Google who is one of the departing members, made clear he would like to remain involved, saying, “I think there’s still a lot more to be done here, and regardless of whether I’m a part of the board, or one of the paid assistants, or just a gadfly back there, I reserve the right to ask questions.”

Asked whether the administration plans to soon announce new appointees or reappoint departing members, a spokesperson for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said the office has no comment on the subject at this time.

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