Is American research giving edge to foreign competitors?

Sylvia Porter

March 27, 1991|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,1991 Los Angeles Times Syndicate Times Mirror Square Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

Are American university researchers giving our foreign competitors the tools and technology that enable them to beat us in the world marketplace?

The question is being asked with increased frequency and urgency, and colleges, government and industry are seeking an answer.

At issue is the enormous amount of basic research and development being conducted at universities in the United States. Little more than a generation ago, that kind of research was conducted chiefly by private industry, with the fruits of such labor being patented -- and therefore owned -- by the companies that paid for the research.

That is no longer the case, at least to the degree it once was. There still are many corporations that have extensive research divisions, yet more and more breakthroughs are being made in publicly funded research institutions, with the knowledge gained being anything but proprietary.

Some analysts worry that while we are unexcelled at developing technology, other countries are at a competitive advantage when it comes to manufacturing the products that make our technology profitable.

In essence, the analysts fear that our money goes to develop things that others can produce and sell to us -- both sending money overseas and reducing production here.

Other analysts note that the international community is becoming just that -- a community -- very rapidly, and that problems involved in the export of ideas are nothing more than a growing pain.

What does it mean to you? Potentially, a great deal. In some cases, perhaps, your job. In other cases, access to products that you might not see for years otherwise.

In any case, it is an issue about which you are likely to hear more and more, and about which you may well want to develop an informed opinion.

You certainly will have an opportunity to do so this summer, when a House subcommittee report on the subject is made public. The report is expected to focus primarily on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has been closely involved with Japanese corporations for a number of years, going so far as to build a duplicate of its media research lab in Japan. It was at the original MIT lab that a type of high-definition television, likely to be the standard in the coming century, was developed.

Surprising, and perhaps a bit alarming, is the statistic provided by the committee that the school has about as many contacts with Japanese companies as it has with American firms. If all foreign corporations with ties to MIT are added into the mix, American companies make up a little more than one-third.

Additionally, two dozen endowed chairs at MIT are paid for by Japanese corporations, and several hundred Japanese students attend MIT. For the most part, upon graduation they will go to work for Japanese companies that, like American companies but unlike American universities, do not make their research public.

This is not meant to single out MIT. The phenomenon takes place at all our leading science and engineering schools. While MIT, which has sought foreign support for more than 40 years, is a good example of the situation, the issue itself is much broader.

Fund raising is of concern to virtually all colleges and universities, but, again, the issue is raised whether it is wise, no matter the necessity, to go abroad for money.

Publication of the House subcommittee report is likely to bring into the spotlight issues that have troubled the schools themselves for years. There will likely be great wailing and gnashing of teeth. With luck, through it all some of the basic questions will emerge and be discussed:

* Is American research skill a national resource, such as mineral deposits or the ability to grow grain? If so, is there a way to control its export? Should there be?

* Do the benefits gained from maintaining relatively open technology outweigh the disadvantages?

* If we are unwilling for our leading technological schools to seek funds from overseas, are we willing to make up the difference ourselves?

* Have we in fact reached the point where it is foolish to consider trade in terms of countries, because it is already irreversibly intermingled, with one country doing the research, another doing the designing and another manufacturing? Much of that, certainly, is already taking place, but is it to be welcomed?

The answers to these difficult questions may shape America's future.

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