For the latter half of the last century, the United States was in first place when it came to science, but now concerns are rising that the country is losing its edge or has already lost it.

How real are those fears? The issue is front-and-center now after President Barack Obama this past weekend called on old-fashioned American innovation to lead the way back to economic prosperity.

The United States still remains the world leader in science, many experts say, but the rest of the world is catching up.

"The United States has been preeminent in science since the World War II, and remains in the lead in several measures," said management scientist Titus Galama at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank. He wrote a 2008 report for the U.S. Secretary of Defense regarding the state of the nation's science and technology along with RAND senior economist James Hosek.

"We employ 70 percent of the world's Nobel Prize winners, account for 40 percent of the world's total R&D expenditures, about a third of the world's patents, and about 35 percent of total research publications," Galama noted. "We're home to 75 percent of both the world's top 20 and top 40 universities, and, if you look at the top 1 percent highly cited research publications in the world, the most influential papers, we're responsible for about 55 percent of those."

Other nations gaining

At the same time, "you see the science efforts of other nations expanding — China, and Japan, and those of the European Union," Galama said. "Europe is growing fast in the number of top 1 percent highly cited research publications, and other countries are on a similar track, all investing significantly in science and technology. While the United States has continued to have solid growth in this area, and leading in most measures, the rest of the world is catching up."

The extent to which the United States has dominated world science until recently "is something that one could not have reasonably expected to last forever," said Al Teich, director of science and policy programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"Other countries are making very conscious and concentrated efforts to advance their science, and our share in terms of publications and patents, all those things you can measure, is going to shrink simply because other countries are becoming more competitive," Teich said. "When people stop wanting to come here and start going to China, that's an indicator of a serious problem, but right now this is still the place to be. Not the only place, but the best place."

Other countries are rapidly educating their people in science and technology, with China and the European Union graduating more scientists and the engineers than the United States, the RAND report noted.

When one investigates how well U.S. students do from kindergarten through high school, "you do see the older high school students not perform as well in science and engineering when compared to other industrialized nations," Galama said.

Still, Teich noted that, "when you get up to the level of universities, I think we're doing pretty well, and part of that reason is because we're benefiting from immigration. The United States still remains a magnet for those who want to achieve."

There are concerns, however, that the United States is becoming increasingly reliant on scientists from abroad. "A striking number is in engineering — almost 60 percent of PhDs there are now being awarded to foreigners, which leads to concerns that the United States might not be educating enough people domestically," Galama said.

How to stay competitive

When it comes to less tangible measures of whether the state of science was improving in this country, Teich noted "that in President Obama's inaugural speech, he talked about restoring science to its rightful place. I think many would say that the eight years prior were a difficult time for science in this country, not so much in funding, but in terms of the extent that the weight of scientific opinion was taken into account in the formation of public policy in things like stem cell research, like global climate change, like other environmental issues such as endangered species."

Teich added, "since the new administration came into power, it's taken upon itself to reverse some of these policies, such as the Bush policy on stem cells, and taken a much more serious approach to climate change, and the president has made a large number of very significant high-level scientific appointments with really top-notch people."

If the United States wants to keep its lead in science, "we need to encourage immigration of highly skilled science and engineering labor and facilitate their long-term stays — we need that talent to stay competitive," Galama said. "Also, if we don't keep them in the United States, then the drive for outsourcing and offshoring is higher. Increasingly firms point out a significant reason for outsourcing is because they can't find enough talent in the United States."

"While protecting our security, when it comes to visa policies, we need to make sure that we make it easier for legitimate visitors to come to this country as scientists and engineers and stay here," Teich said.

And what about improving U.S. school performance in science?

"It's clear we have to invest in education and make it clear to the government and the people of this country that science is where the future lies," Teich said. "We've clearly got problems with the economy and other issues that require our attention, but science is one of those areas that we can't afford to neglect."

Editor's Note: This article is part of a series this week about the history and future of innovation in science and technology that makes life better and more productive.