Professional and related occupations account for 59 percent of all jobs. Workers must continually update their knowledge to retain marketable skills in this industry, which is on the cutting edge of scientific knowledge and technology. Biotechnology and nanotechnology will continue to attract research funding and generate employment growth, but increases in productivity and international competition should dampen growth. Opportunities for scientists and engineers should be best for those who have doctoral degrees; competition for basic and applied research funding is expected to be keen.
The importance of this industry is demonstrated by the considerable attention paid to it by the press, business associations, politicians, and financial markets. Major discoveries are heralded in both the technical and the popular media, and many studies monitor the pace of research and development. New technologies can quickly revolutionize business and leisure, as the Internet has.
Research and development (R&D) comprises three types of activities. Basic research is conducted to further scientific knowledge without any direct application. This sort of research typically involves a high level of theory and is very risky; many projects fail to produce conclusive or novel results. Due to this risk and the broad applicability of the results, most basic research is funded by government, universities, or nonprofit organizations. Applied research is the bridge between science and business. It is directed toward solving some general problem, but may produce several viable options that all achieve some aspect of the goal. Development, which accounts for more than half of all R&D spending, according to the National Science Board, then refines the technologies or processes of applied research into immediately usable products. Most development is done by private industry and is generally oriented toward manufacturing. Nearly everything consumers use, from antibiotics to zoom lenses, is a product of basic research, applied research, and development.
This industry includes diverse fields. The most fundamental division of the scientific research and development services industry is that between R&D in the physical, engineering, and life sciences and R&D in the social sciences and humanities. Important areas of research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences fields include biotechnology; nanotechnology; pharmaceutical; chemical and materials science; electronics; aerospace; and automotive. Important fields of research and development in the social sciences and humanities include economics, sociology, anthropology, and psychology.
Biotechnology is among the most active field of research. Work in this area seeks to understand and use the fundamental processes of cellular life to develop more effective medicines, consumer products, and industrial processes. Advances in biotechnology have led to new drugs and vaccines, disease-resistant crops, more efficient enzymatic manufacturing processes, and novel methods of dealing with hazardous materials. Bioinformatics, a branch of biotechnology using information technologies to work with biological data like DNA, is a particularly vibrant new area of work. Much of the interest in biotechnology has derived from the medical applications of its basic and applied research.
Chemical and materials science R&D focuses on the design and creation of new molecules or materials with useful properties. By researching and modeling the properties of molecules under various conditions, scientists in this field can develop new chemical structures that are stable or volatile, rigid or flexible, insulating or conductive. Since chemical R&D is important to many technologies, it can include work on computer chip manufacturing, composite materials development, or pollution reduction through chemical treatment. Research on petroleum derivatives and substitutes continues to be an important part of this field. Chemical R&D also plays a large role in both biotechnology and nanotechnology R&D.
Electronics R&D incorporates a broad range of technologies, including computer hardware, telecommunications, consumer electronics, automated control systems, medical equipment, and electronic sensing. R&D in this field leads to advances that make electronic systems faster, and more reliable, compact, useful, powerful, and accessible. The development of new technologies, such as polymorphic processors for more powerful computers, and the integration of these technologies into new systems account for much of the R&D in this field. Basic research in areas like electromagnetics and photonics also is a significant part of the work.
Aerospace R&D relates to aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, and component parts and systems. About half of the R&D in aerospace is federally funded, with the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration supporting most of the work. Civil aerospace R&D ranges from developing more efficient passenger aircraft to designing private spacecraft to launch satellites or transport humans into space, but most is devoted to making air transportation safer and more efficient.
Automotive R&D creates new vehicles and systems that are more efficient, powerful, and reliable. While automotive R&D may be directed toward the integration of new technologies into vehicles, much research also is done on improving the individual components such as LED headlights or fuel injectors. As electronic technology has advanced, so have automotive designs. The incorporation of computer systems both for monitoring performance and as separate additional features has added a new dimension to R&D in this field. With the demand for more efficient vehicles that provide more power while using less fuel, a good deal of time and many resources are devoted to powertrain and car body R&D.
R&D in the social sciences and humanities is more closely aligned with specific occupations than it is in the physical, engineering, and life sciences. Economic research typically involves monitoring and forecasting economic trends relating to issues such as business cycles, competitiveness of markets, or international trade. Sociological research analyzes the institutions and patterns of social behavior in society, and the results are used mainly by administrators to formulate policies. Anthropological research focuses on the influence of evolution and culture on all aspects of human behavior. Psychological research studies human thought, learning, motivation, and abnormal behavior.
[ Excerpted from Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Career Guide to Industries, 2008-09 Edition - Scientific Research and Development Services ]