US vs EU, Round XXVIII

Fareed Zakaria has yet another piece on the inevitable decline of Europe. In it, he makes the claim

Talk to top-level scientists and educators about the future of scientific research and they will rarely even mention Europe. There are areas in which it is world class, but they are fewer than they once were. In the biomedical sciences, for example, Europe is not on the map.

High energy physics, anyone? Western European output of scientific papers surpassed that of the US about 10 years ago and the gap is still widening. The US is relatively stronger in biomedical research than in the physical sciences, but Europe has caught up there as well. The loss of the US lead in science is sufficiently widely-accepted that proposed responses made it into Bush’s State of the Union speech.

There are of course, plenty of counterarguments you could make. The quantity of papers produces matters less than their impact, commonly measured by citations, and on this (lagging) indicator, the US is still ahead. The US is still ahead in Nobel prizes, though again the gap is diminishing. And perhaps there are indicators that show the US with an expanding lead relative to Western Europe.

Alternatively, there’s a plausible case to be made that, since scientific knowledge is a public good, it doesn’t matter much where it is produced.

Zakaria could make these or other arguments but doesn’t. Instead he relies on unnamed scientists he has talked to (not a random sample of scientists presumably, or the plurality would be Europeans).

I know that it’s impossible to resolve anything in this debate, but surely some ground rules would be useful. One such rule would that if you’re going to make a claim that contradicts both standard statistics and common perceptions, you should back it up in some way. If, for example, a Europe-booster wants to claim that Europeans actually work harder than Americans, and are therefore more productive, this claim needs more support than “People I talk to all say “.

41 thoughts on “US vs EU, Round XXVIII

  1. John, Where’s the Zakaria article. A link?

    Obviously these days scientific knowledge is not a pure public good. Perhaps it should be but it isn’t.

  2. Fun with conventional wisdom. GDP per capita is a fantastic tool for analysis if you earn in the upper quartile of the 1st percentile, but I wouldn’t want to have to ski a graph of US income distribution, even with a pair of those new Head 88mms. And speaking of illuminating charts, one personal favorite of mine can be found in a Jeremy Grantham quarterly update (of fund manager GMO)- it’s depicts the progression of real wages with and without bonuses/stock options over the last 20 some odd years. It can truly be said there are two Americas.

    In any case, focusing on scientific output is like missing the trees in the forest for the leaves. I couldn’t explain what it means in any way that would hope to be meaningful, and if Fareed Zakaria can, it’s not in his article. If I were to speculate, I would say that the impetus for the piece is not any epiphany that came to him on the toilet, but rather the Muslim backlash in Europe, from the rhetoric surrounding Turkey’s accession to the EU, to the circle the wagons cartoon crisis to Iran. This smacks of being a personal vendetta for Mr. Zakaria. On that level, it makes more sense to me.

    PS Professor Quiggin, would be interested to hear your feedback on post directed to you on the US trade deficit sustainability thread RE the deficit as effect rather than cause of vast credit creation. Sensible, plausible, other, implications? It’s not every day you hear an economist’s opinion of contemporaneous asset prices.

  3. Science might be for the public good, but its also often good for the individual countries doing well at it at the expense of other competitor countries. A good example of this is Airbus, which presumably exists in part due to smart European engineers and scientists — but it competes directly with Boeing, which must be negative for the US. Since these applications are much more in the public perception than papers in journals and so forth that might be beneficial for all, it isn’t surprising that it isn’t used as an argument.

  4. While there is a lot of public good in science patents etc certainly mean that the country doing the science often benefits more. However, there is another factor – seldom mention – as to why it matters who does the science.

    This is that some science is relatively location specific. Australia cannot close up its agricultural research and rely on importing science from overseas because other developed nations have very different soils and problems to us. This probably isn’t a huge issue between the US and Europe (most of the problems they face will be similar) but it is much more important for developing nations.

  5. >A good example of this is Airbus, which presumably exists in part due to smart European engineers and scientists — but it competes directly with Boeing, which must be negative for the US.

    Not necessarily, without Airbus, Boeing would have a monopoly on large passenger planes which would have adverse effects on all aircraft buyers and users.

  6. PrQ,
    On your last sentence I agree wholeheartedly. As one person put it a while back – “The plural of anecdote is not evidence”.

  7. I am not so sure about the US/Italy comparison, WHO figures put the US way ahead of the EU in health investment as expressed as % of GDP and also in longevity post serious disease.

  8. So this Zakaria fellow gets paid to make these predictions? I’d hate to slander an internationally reknowned pundit, but that was really an ordinary bit of opining.

  9. James :

    Thats why I said _in part_. It would also be interesting to know if they get more subsidies than Boeing.

    Ian : I agree with not neccesarily, although seeing the US is fairly desperate for export dollars at the moment, having more expensive planes to get rid of Airbus might be a worthwhile tradeoff. Perhaps a better example is Toyota versus Ford and GM (I’m sure there are heaps of examples), even if some of the Toyota design/manufacturing is done in the US

  10. This is possibly an abuse of this site (and I apologise if it is) but …
    Does anyone know where I can get annual data (probably decennial, so the numbers for every tenth year) for (1) GDP, (2) international trade (in and out dollar values) and (3) labour force makeup, for Australia, from 1901 ’til 2001 (or today)? Other than going through each individual year book (which I’ve started to do). Might any of these things be aggregated somewhere (preferably but not exclusively online)? I’ve searched usual suspects, eg ABS site, with no luck.
    Can anyone help?

  11. Re Boeing Vs Airbus – of course Boeing (and Lockheed and McDonnell- Douglas, Sikorsky etc, etc) receive enormous Government subsidies through American military purchases (as does Airbus, but I doubt they would ever survive as a company on their military sales alone).

    There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but you’re very unlikely to ever see an Airbus (or anything else manufactured in any other country than the US) in American military markings. As an aside, Check out Francis Wheans’ book “How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World” for an informative discussion of how American arms manufacturers have captured the US Government to ensure their own survival.

  12. Geez, give the guy a break, he was writing an op-ed piece not a doctoral thesis. Although his evidence is hardly a smoking gun publishing his own experience is at least adding to the debate. There are plenty of publicly available facts in favor of the US (Jiao Tang university rankings, relative spending on education and a study by Aghion and Howitt largely attributing higher US growth rates to higher levels of innovation). Moreover, Zakaria’s reference to innovation was only one small part of a broader piece on Europe’s relatively low growth rates.

    And, John your reference to the State of the Union speech – to back claims that the US’s decline in science is ‘widely accepted’ – is incorrect. This is the actual quote:

    And to keep America competitive, one commitment is necessary above all: We must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity. Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hardworking, ambitious people — and we’re going to keep that edge. (my emphasis)

    As you say, Bush then goes on to propose responses, but he’s quite clearly not responding to a perceived loss in the US’s lead.
    Don’t get my wrong, I am not having a major go at you here, this is a pretty minor error. However, I have heard you complain before of the nit-picking of some on the right (Tim Blair in particular). I think you are guilty of the same sin here.

  13. Here’s another actual quote, Matt:

    Third, we need to encourage children to take more math and science, and to make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations. We made a good start in the early grades with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is raising standards and lifting test scores across our country.

    Look, Bush’s speechwriter acknowledges that effort if needed. It’s pointless to argue whether Bush’s speechwriter meant that the effort was needed to either catch up or maintain the lead.

    Bush’s SOTU speeches are essentially meaningless. How’s the Mars mission from the 2004 speech going? Disappeared without trace. What happened to the 2006 promised reduction in dependence on middle eastern oil? Abandoned within a day. Et cetera.

  14. But SJ that quote relates to pre-tertiary eduction. JQ’s comments relate more to innovation and higher learning.

    I don’t agree that the speeches are meaningless, although as you point out they may contain meaningless tidbits. Bush has used these speeches to launch major policy initiatives in the past: first mention of the axis of evil, social security reform, etc.

  15. Bush has used these speeches to launch major policy initiatives in the past: first mention of the axis of evil, social security reform, etc.“.

    Yep. Major initiatives that rapidly turned into failures. In the case of Iraq, he won the argument, and got to invade. How’s that going now? Fiasco. What exactly happened to the social security reform? Never got off the ground, becuase people realised that the guy’s a liar.

  16. In the US the pressure to make a buck now lies more heavily on scientists (and for that matter everyone, such as priests, officials and politicians) than ever before.

    Sci-techhies are concentrating more of their effort on commercialising research and locking in intellectual property rights, rather than a disinterrested search for truth. This might explain some of the recent catch-up of the EU to the US.

    Bill Gates is primarily a businessmen, not a techno-nerd. His management efficiency and commercial sense is much better than his technical proficiency. He is the model for money-minded nerds. Fortunately for the US, Wal-Mart is the model for tech-minded suits. This probably explains the continual high rate of nominal US industrial productivity.

  17. The US does seem to excel in commericalizing scientific discovery. And perhaps that’s due to the relative abundance of venture capital in the US. But it’s also due to the US’ ability to attract the “best and brightest” from outside the US to come to the US to study and/or work.

    As this link

    shows, the labor market for scientists is now global and the movement is toward the US, particularly specific US markets, California, Massachusetts and New York. This article addresses the European “brain drain”, causes and possible European responses to stem the drain.

    “The key difference between the American and European experience resides in scientific capability. It is true that European research institutes may perform better in some fields than the US, but they lack the magnet power that can transform them into pivotal points in their fields. European universities, for example, attract fewer international students than US universities do despite the fact that tuition is free in many European universities (European S&T Indicators Report, 1997). ”

    Europeans who come to the US to study, very often stay in the US.

  18. “Look, Bush’s speechwriter acknowledges that effort if needed”

    to keep our edge, as Matt Canavan pointed out.

    “whether Bush’s speechwriter meant that the effort was needed to either catch up or maintain the lead. ”

    “Keeping the edge” means maintaining the lead.

  19. Some areas of computer science & technology where Europe leads: GSM (public cellular mobile networks were first deployed in Scandinavia); the semantic web; multi-agent computing technologies; formal logic as a basis for computation. It might be recalled that Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of what became HTTP (and thus the web) is a European, and was working in Europe at the time. Ditto, Linus Torvalds, lead creator of Linux.

    As a gross generalization, Europe tends to lead where co-ordination between multiple stakeholders is useful (eg, in the development of new technology standards) and/or where large-scale, early-stage (and hence risky) research needs funding (eg, the semantic web). The European Commission’s research-industrial complex can be of help in both such circumstances.

  20. To some extent America is protected by its weakness in langauages. The average US scientist is restricted to working at home, or in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, unless he wants to struggle along in a country where many people don’t speak English.

    Most will choose to stay home

    However, most European scientists do speak English, and will feel a lot more comfortable about doing a stint in the US, and may well choose to stay.

    Of course Australians are just as bad at languages, but we have the huge magnets of the US and UK drawing away our scientists – the fact that we don’t also have to compete with Europe so much doesn’t really help us.

  21. “To some extent America is protected by its weakness in langauages. The average US scientist is restricted to working at home, or in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, unless he wants to struggle along in a country where many people don’t speak English.”

    In general US scientists stay in the US. The emigration appears to be mostly one way, to the US, for education in the life sciences and biotech and for work. But most American scientists choose to stay here not because they don’t speak another language but because they have plenty of opportunity in the US.

  22. Avaroo, can you cite a souce mroe recent than 1997?

    Preferably one that reflects the post-9/11 downturn in US student numbers.

  23. I’m not sure there was much of a post 9/11 downturn in Europeans/East Asians coming to the US to study. Surely there was such a downturn in students coming from the middle east. Mostly because we didn’t let quite as many of them in as prior to 9/11. Not sure we kept out as many Europeans or Japanese/Chinese.

  24. >:I’m not sure there was much of a post 9/11 downturn in Europeans/East Asians coming to the US to study.

    There was.

    I’m through doing your homework for you so go google it yourself.

  25. It was actually around 3% downturn, which I would think could be simply explained by the incresed difficulty middle easterners had getting student visas after 9/11.

  26. It is kind of amusing though Ian that your own link indicates the drop was because the US restricted visas. Also your link details the robound in foreign student numbers. In 2003-2004 there were more than 500,000 international students at US universities. Sometimes it’s better to be sure you’re right BEFORE you’re snide.


  27. For your further education Ian…

    “Despite facing greater challenges after September 11, 2001, in getting visas and entering the country, foreign-born scientists working in U.S. academia have increased in numbers in proportion to their American counterparts, according to a new report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).”

    “A main finding of the report is that the numbers of students and scientists arriving in the United States increased fivefold from 1996 to 2003, mainly from Southeast Asia.”

    I believe that 2003 is AFTER 9/11.


    “The best tend to stay in this country,� Gast of MIT said

  28. Paragraph 3 of Avaroo’s selectively cited reference states:

    “A main finding of the report is that the numbers of students and scientists arriving in the United States increased fivefold from 1996 to 2003, mainly from Southeast Asia. The NAS committee members also are concerned “with what happened after 2002,â€? said committee member Samuel Preston, of the University of Pennsylvania, at the press conference. “Between 2003 and 2004, there was a very large drop of 28 percent in applications from international students [to study at US universities],â€? he said, with an additional drop between 2004 and 2005. ”

    Some points require clarification:

    1. Applications to US universities from SE Asia are increasing for reasons that pertain to SE Asia.

    2. The collapse in applications from the rest of the world results from a combination of reasons that apply to the rest of the world and to US policies and the US profile in the eyes of prospective applicants.

    3. The end of the political potency of the Bush clique, perhaps as soon as the forthcoming mid-term elections, may well unshackle US universities from the stigma of association in the minds of prospective applicants with a bellicose, arrogant and stupid regime. This happy event may well allow US universities to return to their traditional role of providing liberal education to the best students from a grateful world.

    4. I believe that the drop in applications noted above in 2004-05 is AFTER 2003.


  29. 1. Southeast Asian students have come to the US in large numbers for quite a long time. Decades.

    2. After 9/11 the US seriously tightened the visa entry requirements for students. In fact, it’s just now only getting back to being anywhere close to as easy to enter the US on a student visa as it was before 9/11. You have to remember, many of the 9/11 highjackers were in the US on student visas. And while entry requirements were very tightened for middle easterners, they were also tightened for everyone else. It isn’t that students from outside the US suddenly saw reduced opportunities in the US, it just became harder to get in.

    3. If you have any evidence that the Bush administration was the reason any student would refuse the academic opportunity the US affords, let’s see it.

    4. When it’s suddenly impossible to get in one place (the US) it kinda makes sense that students would consider option B (anywhere else).


  30. If Avaroo had qualified for removal from the “naughty spot” I’d respond.

    1. So what?

    2. Tightening has little to do with the number of applications as the case of SE Asian students proves.

    3. Not THE reason. One of the reasons.

    4. See 2.

    More generally, I’m very pleased that Avaroo couches her pollyannaish Bushite loyalism in the naive terms that have become such an amusing feature of her performances on this blog.

    I hope she represents a sizeable component of Bush loyalists. Bush deserves supporters like her.

  31. Some of the greatest growth in numbers of foreign students entering the US to study occurred during the Reagan administration. Another US “regime” considered “stupid, arrogant and bellicose” by the far left. Perhaps foreign students know something far left extremists do not.

  32. As ever with Europe it is two steps forward one step back, that is the nature of her consensus bound politics particularly at the EU level. Zakaria fails to note that the EU has in the past decade expanded to 25 members many of these poorer formerly Warsaw Pact countries. Indeed German re-unification would be the equivalent of the US absorbing Mexico. He also fails to note the economies of the EU periphery are doing quite well growing at a clipper pace. It is easier for smaller countries to turn around than larger ones. Certainly the malaise he speaks of is mainly centered on Germany and France. Yet Germany economy appears ready for an upturn which leaves France perhaps no change there until the presidential elections in a few years but the uptrend is definitely there.

  33. Q: Which country is the largest financial contributer to the LHC project at CERN ?
    A: United States ( $ 530 mn which is approx. 10 % of the total ).
    Q: Which country will have the largest number of scientists working on LHC ?
    A: United States of course. ( about 20 % of total )
    I believe European leaders are spending too much time trying to undermine US. That time will be better spent trying to cure Europe of it
    serious ailments for example a stifling buroecracy which tries to regulate everything from size of condoms to curvature of cucumbers therby undermining economic growth & creating huge unemployment, an aeging & declining Christian population , a surging population of angry young Muslims with nothing but hatred & contempt for the West. If these diseases are not cured Europe will be going out of business within the next few decades.

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