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Slipping in science

FOR YEARS the United States has maintained its dominance in science by attracting enough young scientists from all over the world to learn, teach, and work here. Now there are signs that US preeminence is eroding, in part because foreign researchers have learned they can find the critical mass of financial support and well-trained colleagues and technical staff in their own countries.

A report in The New York Times Monday listed indicators of slipping US superiority. Since 1983, US authorship of articles in physical science journals has dropped from 61 percent to 29 percent last year. Also, US inventors' share of US industrial patents is now 52 percent, down from 60 percent in 1980.

In a global economy with relatively easy transfers of technology, breakthroughs are breakthroughs whether they occur in Boston or Beijing. But industries like aerospace, telecommunications, and pharmaceuticals have benefited greatly from close ties to laboratories. Greater Boston's economy would be crippled if not for the fruits of research done here.

To ensure that discoveries continue to be made in the United States, the nation must reverse the years of decline in the number of US-born students who become scientists. One proposal for improving elementary and high school math and science education comes from Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Jackson thinks there would be more good math and science teachers if they were affiliated with university or private laboratories. The teachers could work full time summers and maintain connections during the school year. The extra money and professional satisfaction could keep talented scientist-teachers in the schools. Jackson also advocates fellowships to recruit women and underrepresented minorities.

No longer can the United States rely on scientists from other countries to do work in the United States and then remain here. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of scientists from China, Taiwan, and India who intend to remain in the United States has been on a steady decline since the late 1990s. This is happening at the same time that many US-born scientists who were inspired by the post-Sputnik push for research are retiring. One factor in dampening foreigners' interest in studying in the United States has been the difficulty many face in getting visas. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has established new rules for granting visas for scientists who work in fields that could be useful to terrorists. The government must find better ways to clear foreigners for research here without long delays.

Jackson calls the attrition in scientists a "quiet crisis." The federal government, state governments, and local school districts have to start making noise about it. 

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