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International Benchmarking of U.S. Chemical Engineering Research Competitiveness 6 Conclusions The report summary and conclusions are provided below. Overall, the analysis was limited by a paucity of field-specific R&D funding and workforce data at the international level. Nonetheless, the members of the Panel have strong confidence in the conclusions provided in earlier sections and below. The United States presently is and is expected to remain in the future among the world’s leaders in all subareas of chemical engineering research with clear leadership in several. The United States is currently among world leaders in all of the subareas of chemical engineering research and enjoys a leading position in both classical subareas as well as emerging areas including: transport processes; cellular and metabolic engineering; systems, computational, and synthetic biology; polymers; nanostructured materials; drug targeting and delivery systems; biomaterials; materials for cell and tissue engineering; fossil energy extraction and processing; air pollution; aerosol science and engineering;
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International Benchmarking of U.S. Chemical Engineering Research Competitiveness dynamics, control and operational optimization; safety and operability of chemical plants; and computational tools and information technology. The United States is expected to maintain in the future its current position at the “Forefront” or “Among World Leaders” in all subareas of chemical engineering research. It is expected to expand and extend its current position in the following subareas: biocatalysis and protein engineering; cellular and metabolic engineering; systems, computational and synthetic biology; nanostructured materials; fossil energy extraction and processing; non-fossil energy; green engineering; However, the strong U.S. position in transport processes; separations; heterogeneous catalysis; kinetics and reaction engineering; electrochemical processes; molecular and interfacial science and engineering; inorganic and ceramic materials; process development and design; and dynamics, control, and operational optimization has been weakened. Leadership in these core areas is now shared with Europe and in specific instances with Japan. Japan and other Asian countries are also particularly competitive in the materialsoriented research, e.g., polymers, inorganic and ceramic materials, biomaterials, and nanostructured materials. In addition, Europe is very competitive in the biorelated subareas of research while Japan is particularly strong in bioprocess engineering. The Panel views the current research trends as healthy. At the same time, the group is concerned about the progressive erosion of U.S. positions in the core areas, because it is the strength in fundamentals that has enabled generations of chemical engineers to create new and highly competitive technologies for processes and products. A strong manufacturing base, a strong culture and system of innovation, and the excellence and flexibility of the education and research enterprise have been and still are the major determinants of U.S. leadership in chemical engineering. The keys to U.S. leadership in chemical engineering research have been the strength and global presence of the U.S. chemical, pharmaceutical, electronic, petroleum, biotechnology, and biomedical companies, the reach of the diverse U.S. economy, and the entrepreneurial ability of its
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International Benchmarking of U.S. Chemical Engineering Research Competitiveness researchers—entrepreneurial in both the academic and commercial sense. The rapid exploitation of new developments is facilitated by the extensive networks and collaborations among leading U.S. chemical engineering researchers that extend to all sectors of the U.S. economy and throughout the world. With the U.S. chemical companies well positioned to maintain and strengthen their global presence and reach, increasing numbers of new consumers, an essential prerequisite for the continued success of U.S. chemical engineering research is assured. However, as the chemical industry becomes progressively (a) more focused on new applications for existing chemical and material platforms rather than inventing big “blockbusters” like nylon and then engineering the lowest cost manufacturing approaches, and (b) more product-centric with greater emphasis on the market trends, it is the strength of the innovation system that will sustain and expand the competitiveness of U.S. research in chemical engineering: innovation in education; innovation in research directions with broad and deep impact; innovation in the modes of carrying out research in collaboration with other researchers, government, and industry; and innovation in the modes of technology transfer to large chemical companies or small startups. Federal programs that encourage research consortia and partnerships in the private sector and that fund precompetitive research at academic institutions, national laboratories, and small to medium-sized companies provide a strong impetus to the development of innovative technologies for chemicals, materials, products, and processes. U.S. graduate education and research experience in chemical engineering has a high level of intellectual diversity, which intertwines with rich human diversity; chemical engineering in the United States has been the destination of choice of human talent from around the world. It has attracted young people with experimental, theoretical and computational, academic, industrial, policy-making, financial, or commercial bents. In addition, U.S. educational programs in chemical engineering have endowed chemical engineering researchers not only with important subject-matter knowledge, which makes them flexible, but also with a keen learning agility, making them quickly adaptable to new “hot topics” and more responsive to competitive pressures. Indeed, analysis of publications and patent data clearly demonstrates that U.S. chemical engineering researchers move much faster in defining or contributing to new areas of research than their counterparts throughout the world. Moving faster allows one to establish leadership, but a flexible balance among all the key determinants is required to sustain leadership. These determinants include: availability of many options for funding research and entrepreneurial developments,
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International Benchmarking of U.S. Chemical Engineering Research Competitiveness creation of opportunities that enhance the diversity of the U.S. talent base, continuous improvements in research quality and productivity through greater unification of diverse new elements in the field and expansion in multidisciplinary collaborations, and balanced treatment of the short-term focus of the U.S. innovation system against the sustained health of the education and research enterprise that underpins the success of commercial innovation. The agility and flexibility of the U.S. chemical engineering researcher is a major source of competitive advantage. The Panel believes that it needs to be preserved and strengthened. Therefore, federal programs and industrial support that encourage innovation in graduate chemical engineering education could have a deep and long-lasting impact on research competitiveness. Such programs may include support for initiatives leading to development of cohesive new core curricula naturally integrating physical, chemical, and biological phenomena at all spatial and temporal scales; enhanced interaction with researchers from other disciplines, particularly chemistry, biology, physics, materials science and engineering, and with industrial researchers; experience in defining, developing, and deploying innovation projects inspired from research results; and opportunities for international cooperation. Shifting federal and industry funding priorities, a potential reduction in attracting human talent, domestic or foreign, and a narrowing of the discipline’s technology breadth could diminish the United States’ ability to turn today’s scientific and technical discoveries into tomorrow’s leading jobs in industry and education. U.S. leadership in the various areas of chemical engineering is not assured for the future. In contrast to opportunities of leadership, there are current developments that could hurt the ability of the United States to capitalize on these opportunities. These include shifting funding priorities by federal agencies, reductions in industrial support of academic research in the United States in favor of academic support in other countries, potential decreases in the supply of talented foreign graduate students, reduced attractiveness of chemical engineering as a career path for the most talented U.S. citizens and permanent residents, shrinking of U.S.-based research laboratories by major chemical companies, and lack of attention to research
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International Benchmarking of U.S. Chemical Engineering Research Competitiveness into methods for shortening the development and implementation cycle for new chemicals, materials, processes, and products. The Panel’s analysis of the data has clearly indicated the weakening of the U.S. position in several areas of chemical engineering research, especially the core areas with a significant component of fundamental research. This weakening is presently confined in volume of output, but may eventually extend to include quality and impact. Stopping and reversing this erosion is of critical importance. Human talent is at the heart of leadership. Attracting the best young people to the chemical engineering research enterprise is a prerequisite to sustaining our leadership. International competition for talent is heating up, and the winners will be determined by their ability to attract and retain human talent. The U.S. education system in chemical engineering has achieved excellence, which has been acknowledged throughout the world, and continues to attract top talent from other countries, especially those that lack adequate programs for training research leaders. There is concern that improvements in graduate programs in developing countries will not only meet their own needs for building indigenous research, but will attract home the top researchers and students who currently reside in the United States. To compound this potential threat, smaller numbers of talented young Americans choose science and engineering as their profession, leading to a smaller pool of talented individuals from which to draw the next generation of chemical engineering researchers. Starting salaries for Ph.D. chemical engineers, although still quite attractive in relation to salaries for Ph.D.s from sciences and other engineering disciplines, have just barely kept pace with inflation over the past 25 years. Today, other professions offer higher financial incentives and draw increasing fractions of talented young Americans. Similar trends have been observed in Europe, Japan, and in developing countries such as India. The dynamic range of chemical engineering research over many spatial and temporal scales, across a broad range of products and processes, and throughout the vast variety of industries and social needs it serves, has been a profound force of innovation and competitiveness. This dynamic range is presently at risk. Federal funding opportunities are plentiful in support of research at “small” scales, molecular, nano, and biomedical. With the exception of ethanol plants in the midwestern United States, the U.S. chemical industry is choosing to build new plants not in the United States but in emerging economies. In addition, chemical industry support for academic research has been reduced and directed towards narrowly targeted developments with quick payback. Newly established research centers and research consortia have enhanced the centrifugal forces of chemical engineering research towards the periphery of the field where they interact with various other disciplines.
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International Benchmarking of U.S. Chemical Engineering Research Competitiveness Although such developments may be seen as results of a process that enhances research efficiency and effectiveness and directs resources towards high value-added research outcomes, they nevertheless erode the historical technology underpinnings of a successful national research enterprise and put the United States in a highly vulnerable position when “lost” or “deteriorated” competencies are once again needed for future technologies. An important example of this is the inevitable need for alternative energy sources. Virtually all of the options being explored today will rely heavily on traditional chemical engineering for implementation. If the United States becomes a nation of “nanomaterial-makers,” the country may be first to exploit nanomaterials for new energy sources, but will lack the wherewithal to implement a total solution. At best this weakness will delay implementation; at worst the United States will need to “buy” technology from abroad and suffer the economic consequences. The Panel believes that addressing this issue is of critical importance for addressing national needs in energy and the environment and preserving U.S. competitiveness in the future.
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