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Report outlines steps for US to improve its competitiveness in basic energy sciences

September 23, 2021
By: Colin Edwards

The supremacy of the U.S. research enterprise has been eroding, particularly challenged by China and other Asian countries, and a new draft report from the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) at the Department of Energy (DOE) concludes that U.S. leadership in basic energy sciences will continue to diminish without intervention. Specifically, the report finds that to stay internationally competitive in basic energy sciences the U.S. must: increase total funding for R&D, spanning from basic and fundamental research to experimental development; focus multi-disciplinary research on several key areas of energy sciences; increase the nation’s ability to attract and retain the world’s top scientists and engineers; and, facilitate interactions among basic, applied, and industrial researchers to accelerate the translation of research into socially beneficial technologies.

The report finds several areas where the U.S. is falling behind international competitors in basic energy sciences research. The first main area of concern is funding for R&D. China is likely to soon surpass the U.S. in total R&D investment, and the U.S. was ranked 10th globally in R&D investment as a share of GDP in 2020. Research shows that R&D investment within the energy, health, and defense sectors can boost employment and revenues, and although Congress is working on a $3.5 trillion spending package that would provide $45 billion in science funding, it is unclear how that funding would be distributed among the nation’s competing research priorities.

Another looming problem area is talent attraction, according to the draft report. Not only are fewer foreign students and early career scientists choosing to study and work in the U.S., but fewer domestic scientists are entering the labor force. The BESAC report indicates that inadequate access to federally-funded research facilities is a primary challenge in talent attraction and retention, forcing researchers to accept positions where access to government-funded facilities is more widely available — particularly in Europe.

Other analyses point to additional challenges for the U.S. in retaining top scientific talent including that enrollment at degree-granting institutions of higher education (IHEs) has declined over the last 10 years; that STEM degrees do not always lead to STEM employment after graduation; and that disparities persist in science and engineering (S&E) education and employment for women, minorities, and persons with disability.

The BESAC report outlines additional, more specific areas where the U.S. is falling behind its international competitors including quantum information science; science for energy applications; matter for energy and information; industrially-relevant science for sustainability; and, advanced research facilities.

The report also provides some strategies for maintaining U.S. competitiveness in the basic energy sciences into the future including:

  • Increasing funding, including for the development of advanced research facilities and instrumentation;
  • Bolster support for early-career and mid-career scientists;
  • Enhance opportunities for staff scientists at advanced research facilities; and,
  • Better integrate energy sciences research across the full spectrum — from basic to applied to industrial research.
energy, science, international R&D