America, But Not Americans, Lead World in Science

26 percent of Americans polled didn’t know the Earth revolves around the Sun

Most Americans are not good with Science, but most of them admire scientists, according to a new survey conducted by the National Science Foundation.

More than 90 percent of Americans agree that scientists “are helping to solve challenging problems,” and are “dedicated people who work for the good of humanity,” according to the survey, released Feb. 14 by Michigan State University, faculty members of which reviewed the data and wrote the analysis.

“It’s important for Americans to maintain a high regard for science and scientists. It can help ensure funding and help attract future scientists,” according to John Besley, of MSU’s Department of Advertising and Public Relation, who was lead author on the analysis paper and presenter of the results to a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Feb. 14.

A third of the 2,200 Americans surveyed by the NSF think science and technology research should get more funding, and 90 percent thought the benefits outweighed the potential dangers.

Respect is one thing, however; understanding is another.

Only 74 percent of Americans surveyed knew the Earth revolves around the Sun. Only 48 percent know humans evolved from earlier species of animal.

The biennial study does more than measure the relative ignorance of ordinary Americans, however. It also analyzes the type and amount of scientific and technical research being done by the United States in order to compare the performance of the U.S. with that of the rest of the world.

It also found that tech-enabled businesses categorized as Knowledge- and Technology-Intensive (KTI) industries grew to make up 27 percent of the world’s gross domestic product during 2012 and 40 percent of U.S. GDP.

China’s share of the high-tech manufacturing market rose from 8 percent in 2003 to 24 percent in 2012, but still lagged the U.S., which held 27 percent.

R&D funding is also highest in the U.S. , with total spending of $429 billion during 2011 compared to $208 billion for China and $147 billion for Japan. R&D in the U.S. amounted to 30 percent of the world total during 2011 compared to 15 percent for China, 10 percent for Japan and 22 percent for all of the European Union.

The amount of R&D being done in smaller countries is rising so quickly, however, that the overall percentage of global R&D accounted for by the U.S. dropped from 37 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2011, despite continuing increases in the actual number of dollars spent.

The U.S. is still the leader in innovation as well, at least according to the number of patents granted by the U.S Patent and Trademark Office.

Despite an increase of 38 percent in the number of patents granted to U.S. inventors between 2003 and 2012, however the U.S. share of total world patents granted during that time declined from 53 percent to 48 percent.

The NSF’s conclusion is that the U.S. came through the global economic downturn of the 2000s better than the rest of the world, as measured by levels of high-tech manufacturing and innovation.

A host of other countries are racing to catch up, however, increasing the amount of high-tech work, innovation, trained technical workers and high-tech businesses enough to make significant reductions in the percentage of those industries provided by the U.S.

The increasing interconnectedness of the global economy, focus on high-value technologies and traditional role as technology leader, however, are likely to provide plenty of opportunities for the growth of both academic and commercial research as well as providing a willing customer base for U.S.-based technology businesses.

The potential of U.S. high-tech businesses in an increasingly high-tech and interconnected world appears to be good news for the U.S. in terms of both global trade and the domestic economy. It still doesn’t explain how a quarter of the population of the world’s leading technological superpower could be unaware that the Earth revolves around the Sun, however, or how the U.S. became a technological superpower despite that weakness.


Image: Vadim Sadovski