Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Decline of Scientific Research in America

Sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery is an engine of eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary pow­er, and Amer­i­ca has long prid­ed itself on its lead­er­ship in research. But as astro­physi­cist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in this video, there are some dark clouds on the hori­zon.

When you look at the trend­line, Tyson says, sci­en­tif­ic research in Amer­i­ca is clear­ly in a state of decline com­pared to oth­er regions, like Asia and West­ern Europe. “As every­one else under­stands the val­ue of inno­v­a­tive invest­ments in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy in ways that we do not,” says Tyson, “we slow­ly fade.”

The maps Tyson uses are from The one that he says rep­re­sents change from “2000 to 2010” actu­al­ly depicts growth in sci­en­tif­ic research from 1990 to 2001. Dan­ny Dor­ling, pro­fes­sor of  Human Geog­ra­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sheffield and part of the team that cre­at­ed Worldmap­per, con­firmed Tyson’s error but said, “I think Neil’s got it rough­ly right. He should just have said ‘this is the trend to 2001 and it is not just like­ly it has con­tin­ued, but it has prob­a­bly accel­er­at­ed.’ ”

Tyson’s com­ments are from a talk he gave in May at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton enti­tled, “Adven­tures of an Astro­physi­cist.” For a clos­er look at the maps he uses, see below.

The col­or-cod­ed world map above can be used for ref­er­ence when study­ing the maps below.

The map above rep­re­sents ter­ri­to­ry sizes in pro­por­tion to the num­ber of papers pub­lished in 2001 that were writ­ten by sci­en­tists liv­ing there. The num­ber of sci­en­tif­ic papers pub­lished by researchers liv­ing in Amer­i­ca was more than three times greater than the num­ber pub­lished in the sec­ond-high­est-pub­lish­ing coun­try, Japan. For more infor­ma­tion, includ­ing per capi­ta data, see Worldmap­per’s PDF poster.

The map above rep­re­sents the growth in sci­en­tif­ic research between 1990 and 2001. Ter­ri­to­ry sizes are pro­por­tion­al to the increase in sci­en­tif­ic papers by authors work­ing in those coun­tries in 2001 com­pared to 1990. If there was no increase dur­ing that peri­od, the coun­try has no area on the map.

Despite the fact that the Unit­ed States had the most pub­lished research in 2001 and a net increase in research betwen 1990 and 2001, its size is small­er on the map because of a sig­nif­i­cant­ly greater growth rate by coun­tries like Japan, the Repub­lic of Korea, Sin­ga­pore, Chi­na and Ger­many. Although the data behind the maps are now a decade old, Dor­ling sug­gests that a cur­rent map might look sim­i­lar. “If I had to guess,” he said, “it would look worse for the USA giv­en the mas­sive cuts in fund­ing in Cal­i­for­nia to some of the major state Uni­ver­si­ties there.”

You can find more on this map, includ­ing a print­able PDF poster with per capi­ta data by coun­try, along with infor­ma­tion on the sources and method­ol­o­gy behind its cre­ation, by vis­it­ing Worldmap­per.

Maps © Copy­right SASI Group (Uni­ver­si­ty of Sheffield) and Mark New­man (Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan)

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Comments (6)
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  • sherifffruitfly says:

    Cool. I learned the dif­fu­sion process for car­tograms from the Gast­ner & New­man paper at UMich:

    Paper file name is geocomp.pdf.

    The math­e­mat­i­cal­ly illit­er­ate will nat­u­ral­ly have a great deal of trou­ble read­ing the paper.

  • Eric says:

    all i see in these maps is uni­ver­si­ty pro­pa­gan­da.

  • bonfils says:

    Mea­sur­ing growth only is what screwed up the world econ­o­my. I doubt that it’s very help­ful in sci­ence.
    Any coun­try that had zero sci­en­tif­ic research before 1990 and has a bit now, will score high on the growth map. Where­as a coun­try already doing well reasearch-wise will even­tu­al­ly hit the ceil­ing and won’t be able to grow any­more.
    (I’m not say­ing this is the case for the US — yet. Just point­ing out the pos­si­ble pit­falls of this method of mea­sur­ing progress)

  • cerebri virtute says:

    Very good point, bon­fils.

    Still, this should strike a cord with folks. Espe­cial­ly when we have calls from some para­noid anti-sci­ence pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to cut edu­ca­tion & sci­ence fund­ing. We can­not stay a great force with­in the world with­out hav­ing a great edu­ca­tion sys­tem & sup­port­ing sci­en­tif­ic research. The coun­tries on the edge (of such research devel­op­ments) are the ones who stay ahead, it has been so through­out his­to­ry.

  • Evan says:

    There are two major fac­tors that make the above pre­sen­ta­tion irrel­e­vant.

    1. The speak­er mea­sures research progress by using the quan­ti­ty of research papers and stud­ies as the pri­ma­ry met­ric.

    As if the whole of the research com­mu­ni­ty is locked in to Uni­ver­si­ties. Last I checked many of the best-and-bright­est peo­ple that come out of high­er edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions are more like­ly to tran­si­tion into com­mer­cial indus­try (where the fruits of their labor are actu­al­ly imple­ment­ed) than remain in schools writ­ing papers.

    Quan­ti­ta­tive­ly the num­bers look bad but how much of that research is being tested/used/proliferated in today’s indus­try com­pared to a few decades ago.

    2. The word ‘sci­en­tif­ic research’ itself in the tra­di­tion­al sense is becom­ing an anti­quat­ed term. What exact­ly does that rep­re­sent? Tak­ing an idea and run­ning proof from start to fin­ish to ver­i­fy whether the hypoth­e­sis is true/false?

    What about projects that use iter­a­tive devel­op­ment mod­els such generational/evolutionary test­ing algo­rithms to achieve bet­ter results by advanc­ing only the best/worst results of each iter­a­tion. Projects where there is no per­ceived end goal, just a con­stant pro­gres­sion to improve.

    Or grass­roots col­lab­o­ra­tive devel­op­ments where tons of peo­ple con­tribute to projects to inno­vate using exist­ing ele­ments in new ways that fol­low a tree-branch open source mod­el where a project may branch off in many dif­fer­ent direc­tions and only the most suc­cess­ful branch­es con­tin­ue to grow/diverge where the less suc­cess­ful slow­ly die off and dis­ap­pear. See

    It’s like say­ing that cable TV is in decline because we don’t have 2000 chan­nels; com­plete­ly dis­re­gard­ing the inter­net and all oth­er forms of media that we all create/consume on a wide range of plat­forms. The clas­sic producer/consumer mod­el does­n’t scale well over time.

    We have suc­cess­ful­ly tran­si­tioned into a sec­ond age of enlight­en­ment where infor­ma­tion is final­ly free(read: free­dom) for all. It would be nice if our edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions could update their cur­ricu­lum and final­ly catch up to the rest of us. Less the pro­pa­gan­da…

    I’m hon­est­ly sur­prised the speak­er did­n’t toss up a ‘hock­ey stick dia­gram’ for com­plete­ness sake ::sigh::.

  • larry lyons says:

    “Anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism has been a con­stant thread wind­ing its way through our polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al life, nur­tured by the false notion that democ­ra­cy means that ‘my igno­rance is just as good as your knowl­edge.’”
    ― Isaac Asi­mov

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