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Reimagining the Science and Engineering Indicators: Improving How Information is Delivered to Policymakers

Did you know that while the United States (U.S.) outspends the rest of the world on scientific research and development, and publishes the most impactful peer-reviewed articles in science and engineering in the world, its math and science test scores at the elementary school level are globally mediocre? High-quality data on these issues and others are published in the latest edition of Science and Engineering Indicators, a congressionally mandated report prepared by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), under the guidance of the National Science Board. NCSES is a principal federal statistical agency housed within the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate of the National Science Foundation.

Decisions made by the federal government help to direct the nation’s science and engineering enterprise, and so have profound effects on everyone. Science and Engineering Indicators provides high-quality data for decisionmakers by portraying the landscape of science and engineering in the U.S. with quantitative indicators of education, the labor force, research and development, innovation, and public attitudes toward science and engineering. Critically, Indicators is policy-relevant but policy-neutral, which ensures it to be regarded as a credible and reliable source of information.

Science and Engineering Indicators is currently undergoing an exciting “reimagining” process designed to make it more accessible, timely, and dynamic, consistent with the government’s recent mandate on evidence-based policymaking. One important step of reimagining is slimming down the word count and staggering the release of content. Traditionally, Indicators was published biennially as a single document comprised of long chapters. Now, beginning with the 2020 edition, short and accessible reports will replace the lengthy chapters, covering the same content as previous editions with more economy and clarity. The reports are also being released separately over several months. Staggering the releases aims to focus attention on the topic of each report without overwhelming readers with information. Reports covering the focus areas of K-12 Math and Science Education, Higher Education in Science & Engineering, and the Science & Engineering Labor Force were released in September 2019, and a report on Publications Output for Science & Engineering was released in December 2019. Five more reports are due for publication in early 2020. On January 15th 2020, “The State of U.S. Science and Engineering,” a short printed report summarizing the key findings across all reports, will be delivered to its statutory stakeholders, the White House and Congress.

An important part of the reimagined Indicators is increased leveraging of web-based tools, delivering the content in a form that better meets the demands of growing digital usage. Each online report enables maximum interactivity for the end user through exploration, manipulation, and downloading of data. Detailed statistics become visible by navigating the cursor over a figure, data series can be hidden to focus on specific information, and figure axes dynamically scale according to the data that the user wants to see (see Figure). Users can also dig deeper into supplementary information, data sources, and methodology on the website.

Figure: An example of a dynamic figure on the Science and Engineering Indicators website. The version on the top is the primary view of the figure. The version on the bottom is altered by a user who removed some categories and navigated the mouse over a bar to show detailed numbers.


Reimagining Science and Engineering Indicators aims to maximize impact without sacrificing its high quality. The objective is to make it easier than ever for readers to understand the narrative, use the data, and share it with colleagues and on social media. This objective aims to not only make evidence-based policymaking easier for federal decisionmakers, but also to meet the informational needs of a broader audience that could include students, the media, think tanks, and educational organizations. As science and engineering changes our lives at a quickening pace, Indicators strives be a rich and reliable reflection of those changes for an increasingly diverse group of stakeholders.

Banner Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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