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the Complete Review
the complete review - science / sociology


Is American Science
in Decline ?

Yu Xie
Alexandra A. Killewald

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To purchase Is American Science in Decline ?

Title: Is American Science in Decline ?
Authors: Yu Xie/A.A.Killewald
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012
Length: 139 pages
Availability: Is American Science in Decline ? - US
Is American Science in Decline ? - UK
Is American Science in Decline ? - Canada
Is American Science in Decline ? - India

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Our Assessment:

(-) : fine overview and analysis of the data

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Nature . 12/7/2012 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Enter sociologists Yu Xie and Alexandra Killewald, whose nuanced view is backed up by able number-crunching." - Nature

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Is American Science in Decline ? is not a polemic. While obviously arising out of a concern that 'American science' may be on the decline, and also offering some policy suggestions in their conclusions, Xie and Killewald are mainly concerned with looking at the big picture, from as many angles as possible, in trying to get a sense of where American science currently stands. They do so mainly by crunching the numbers, examining a wide variety of science-practice and -perception related data to see what the trends are and whether decline can be diagnosed.
       'Science' is, of course, a very broad concept; its practice has also evolved rapidly, as the authors remind us: professionalization of science is relatively recent, especially in the US -- and there was a series of shifts over the past centuries, from England to France to Germany to, finally, the US as a center of science. The American model, with its large web of research universities, great corporate interest in science, and enormous government support, has proven very successful for nearly a century. Some signs -- including low average test scores among American students as well as a growing proportion of advanced degrees going to foreign students -- may appear troubling, but the authors try to put these into perspective.
       Other findings that may signal trouble are perhaps not as obvious: the authors note, for example, that science is a respected occupation, and public recognition is one of its rewards; however, (inflation-adjusted) wages have largely stagnated since the 1960s -- and declined significantly in comparison to other "high-status, high-education professions". They also consider both the questions of whether too few -- or too many (which might account for wage-pressure keeping remuneration low) -- people are employed in science. Clearly, there are supply and demand issues of some concern, which they note must be addressed -- albeit carefully, given the possible unintended consequences of any measures that are taken.
       Decline is, of course, also a relative phenomenon, and the authors correctly point out that one has to be careful not to draw the wrong conclusions from global 'competition'. Science is not a zero-sum game, and increased scientific activity abroad may well lead to a (relative) decline of American dominance in certain (or, eventually, most) fields; that, by itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, the push that the feeling of falling behind gives -- as with the space race with the Soviets -- may be a positive in focusing effort (and money) on science (though again this is not as straightforward a plus as it might first seem: the space program was, for example, arguably not anywhere close to the best thing to devote all those human and financial resources to).
       Is American Science in Decline ? is useful in providing the data and some analysis of science in America and how it has changed over the past decades. With nearly forty pages of an appendix of 'Detailed Statistical Tables', the authors also provide large amounts of supporting material that readers can wade through -- but their summaries and conclusions should be sufficient for most readers.
       There are few definitive observations that point to obvious policy remedies -- yes, it's a complicated subject -- and the authors are fairly gentle in their suggestion-nudges towards change and improvement. Among the areas of concern they identify are academic science and international competition; the most surprising finding, however, would seem to be wage stagnation in the field(s), which clearly may limit the number of people willing to pursue scientific careers. (Given current economic conditions it becomes interesting to see whether additional factors -- job security, for example, or job mobility -- might play a role in making scientific careers look better again.)
       Not surprisingly, the authors don't offer a definitive answer to the question posed in their title -- "a qualified no" is about as far as they're willing to go -- but it seems clear that there is, as of now, no clear 'Yes' or 'No' answer. Helpfully, however, Is American Science in Decline ? does point to areas of both success and concern -- and clearly points to the fact that, as in so many areas, it's important not to get too cocky and think that everything is perfect, just because America has led the world for so long in this area. It's always good to look for possible weaknesses -- and possible ways to address these -- and Is American Science in Decline ? does help facilitate both.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 August 2012

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Is American Science in Decline ?: Reviews: Yu Xie: Alexandra A. Killewald: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Yu Xie teaches at the University of Michigan.

       Alexandra A. Killewald teaches at Harvard.

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© 2012 the complete review

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