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So America is becoming a second-rate power in the world, is it?

Plenty of Americans themselves are sometimes tempted to think so in view of the increasingly stiff competition the United States is getting from a variety of rivals, particularly Japan and Germany, in a number of important fields from science to economics and politics.But the reports of America's eclipse are way off the mark. Just how far off can be seen from the way the United States continues to dominate a major indicator of national progress and prowess - the Nobel Prize.

Among those sharing 1990 Nobel Prizes this week in six fields were eight Americans - two for physics, one for chemistry, three for economics, and two for medicine.

The latest awards mean that since 1970 the Nobel Prize has been won or shared by 20 Americans in chemistry, 27 Americans in physics and 18 Americans in economics.

This track record certainly justifies plenty of national pride as long as America doesn't get overconfident. There's always the possibility that this nation could slip. As the federal government tries to tighten its belt, it has been stinting on funds for basic research, which can provide the basis for stepped up productivity. Moreover, the transformation of new knowledge into better products for better living isn't automatic, and on this score some of our rivals are outdoing America.

The lesson should be clear: Despite America's impressive achievements as indicated by the way it keeps winning far more Nobel Prizes than any other nation, the United States cannot afford to become complacent.