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International Benchmarking of U.S.

Chemical
Engineering Research Competitiveness

This report highlights the main findings of a benchmarking exercise to rate the standing of
U.S. chemical engineering relative to other regions or countries, key factors that influence
U.S. performance in chemical engineering, and near- and longer-term projections of re-
search leadership.

M
ore than a quarter of the jobs in the United States depend on chemistry in one
way or another, and over $400 billion worth of products rely on innovations
from this field. Chemical engineering, as an academic discipline and profession,
has enabled the science of chemistry to achieve this level of significance. However, over the
last 10-15 years, concerns have been raised about the identity and future of the U.S. chemical
engineering enterprise, stemming from the globalization of the chemical industry; expansion
of the field’s research scope as it interfaces with other disciplines; and narrowing of the field’s
ability to address important scientific and technological questions covering the entire spectrum of
products and processes—from the macroscopic to molecular level.
At the request of the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council con-
ducted an in-depth benchmarking analysis to gauge the current standing of the U.S. chemical
engineering field in the world. The benchmark measures included: 1) the development of a Virtual
World Congress comprised of the “best of the best” as identified by leading international experts
in each subarea, 2) analysis of journals to uncover directions of research and relative levels of re-
search activities, 3) analysis of citations to measure the quality of research and its impact, and 4)
the quantitative analysis of trends in degrees conferred to and employment of chemical engineers,
and some other measures including patent productivity and awards.
The United States is presently, and is expected to remain, among the world’s leaders
in all subareas of chemical engineering research, with clear leadership in several subareas.
U.S. leadership in some classical and emerging subareas will be strongly challenged.

Figure 1. Number of journal


US A
articles in chemical engineer- 35,000
ing from various geographic
regions. Although the U.S. 30,000 A s ia
has more than any other (C hina, K orea,
single nation, the comparative 25,000 Taiw an, India)
percentage of U.S. articles has E uropean U nion
Number of Articles

decreased substantially, due in 20,000


part to a rapid rise in the num-
ber of articles from Asia. 15,000 Japan

10,000
NOTE: Asia is comprised of C anada
China, Korea, Taiwan, and In-
5,000
dia. European Union includes
25 countries. 0 S outh A m eric a
1980-84 1985-89 1990-94 1995-99 2000-06
T im e Pe r io d
The United States is currently among world
100
leaders in all of the subareas of chemical engineer-
ing research identified in the report, and leads in both 90

classical subareas such as transport processes as well as 80

100 Most Cited Chemical Engineering Papers


emerging areas such as cellular and metabolic engi- 70
United S tates
neering. Although the comparative percentage of U.S. 60 As ia
journal articles has decreased substantially (See Figure 50 E uropean Union
1), the quality and impact still remain very high and C anada
40
clearly in a leading position. For example, 73 of the Japan
30
100 most cited papers in chemical engineering litera-
ture during the period 2000-2006 came from the United 20

States (see Figure 2). In addition, the United States 10


leads in the percentage of journal articles with 100 or 0
more citations. As a result, the United States is expect- 1985-90 2000-06
ed to maintain its current position at the “Forefront” Figure 2. Contributions to top 100 most cited chemical engineer-
or “Among World Leaders” in all subareas of chemi- ing journal articles. In recent decades, the United States has been
cal engineering research, and to expand and extend its a strong leader. It is noteworthy that in 2000-2006, 13 of the 100
current position into subareas such as biocatalysis and most cited papers were contributions from Asia.
protein engineering; cellular and metabolic engineering;
systems, computational, and synthetic biology; nano- NOTE: Asia is comprised of China and Korea, and the European
Union includes 25 countries. This figure was derived from data in
structured materials; fossil energy and extraction and Table 3.3 of the report.
processing; non-fossil energy, and green engineering.

U.S. leadership in some classical and emerging Factors significantly affecting the leadership
subareas will be strongly challenged. position of the United States in the future.
The range of chemical engineering research over
U.S. leadership in the core areas of transport
many spatial and temporal scales, across a broad range
processes; separations; catalysis; kinetics and reaction
of products and processes, and throughout a variety of
engineering; process development and design; and
industries and social needs it serves, has led to innova-
dynamics, control, and operational optimization is
tion and competitiveness but is presently at risk. Most
now shared with Europe and in some cases Japan,
biotechnology and nanotechnology technologies being
as shown by decreases in U.S. journal articles and
explored today rely on traditional chemical engineering
citations. Japan and other Asian countries are
for implementation. Creating conditions for a more
particularly competitive in the materials-oriented
balanced approach that safeguards the dynamic range
research, e.g., polymers, inorganic and ceramic
of chemical engineering research is critical to address-
materials, biomaterials, and nanostructured materials.
ing national needs in energy and the environment and
Europe is also very competitive in the bio-related
preserving U.S. competitiveness in the future. Future
subareas of research, while Japan is particularly strong
U.S. leadership in chemical engineering is not guaran-
in bioprocess engineering. The report’s authoring
teed. Many factors could significantly affect the posi-
committee views the current research trends as healthy,
tion of the U.S., and include shifting funding priorities
but at the same time, is concerned about the progressive
by federal agencies, reductions in industrial support of
decline of the U.S. position in the core areas, because it
academic research in the United State, and decreases in
is strength in fundamentals that has enabled generations
talented foreign graduate students, among others.
of chemical engineers to create new and highly
competitive technologies for processes and products.

This brief was prepared by the National Research Council based on a report by the Committee on
Benchmarking the Research Competitiveness of the United States in Chemical Engineering. The report
was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. For more information, contact the Board on Chemical
Sciences and Technology at (202) 334-2156 or visit http://dels.nas.edu/bcst. Copies of International
Benchmarking of U.S. Chemical Engineering Research Competitiveness are available from the National
Academies Press, 500 Fifth Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001; (800) 624-6242; www.nap.edu.

Permission granted to reproduce this document with no additions or deletions.


Copyright 2007 The National Academy of Sciences