One of the things that’s most enjoyable about covering the design engineering space is seeing, on a continual basis, the amount of new technology being used in so many industries, from the component to the system level. But it’s important to realize that much of what feeds that pipeline of new tech is the invention that’s happening in research and development. R&D happens in multiple places — in corporate facilities, across much of academia, and in government-supported national laboratories.
Our sister publication, R&D World, recently published its annual Global Funding Forecast for this important sector, and it’s worth noting that China has nearly caught up to the U.S. in terms of being the world’s leading R&D investor. If current spending trends continue, the baton will be passed to them in about 2025. What’s more, Asia is now the leading region for R&D investment, with more than a 44% global share. And fully 50% of the worldwide spending may be in Asia before 2030.
Recently, the report by the Task Force on American Innovation, “Second Place America? Increasing Challenges to U.S. Scientific Leadership,” noted that China and other countries are boosting investments in research and growing their STEM (science, technology, engineering and manufacturing) workforces. It explained that emerging economies, particularly China, are playing a greater role in scientific discovery and innovation and challenging established U.S. leadership in critical research fields. Further, it asserted that China has overtaken the U.S. in total research publication output as of 2016 and is now the dominant producer in engineering, physics, chemistry, geosciences and mathematics.
The report also noted that other countries continue to invest heavily in higher education, turning out more science and technology graduates. The U.S. trails the top eight countries in the European Union as measured by the total number of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering awarded since 2000.
The U.S. has been used to being the leader in so many areas of engineering and technology, but is this era finally coming to a close? For the past few decades, we’ve seen warning signs — just think of our falling rankings in mathematics and science scores for schoolkids. I see R&D as another strong barometer of what’s to come in engineering technology, and the readings it’s giving are concerning. It’s not too late, but we all must tell our elected officials as well as our corporate leaders that R&D funding is critical to our future success in so many fields.