Americans have asked the question over and over: Can the U.S. compete? World markets are increasingly dominated by Pacific Rim trading giants, incorporating banking, manufacturing, securities and shipping firms under elastic corporate roofs, or by European combines, selling goods developed with extensive government support. American products are often rejected by Americans for goods whose image of superiority seemingly withstands all challenges.
In "Gaining New Ground: Technology Priorities for America's Future," the Council on Competitiveness has re-worded the question: How can the U.S. compete? And it has sought out answers.
The council, composed of chief executives from business, higher education and organized labor, has horsepower other groups have lacked. Motorola Corp. chief George Fisher heads an executive committee of the leaders of Ford Motor Co., the AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers, MIT, Harvard and a corporate and academic Who's Who, with a general membership every bit as potent.
Examining studies by Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the European Community, the council found that its list of critical technologies covers territory others already targeted: materials processing; engineering and production technologies; electronic components; information technologies, and power-train and propulsion technologies. What's different is the low priority the U.S. has assigned to staying ahead. That translates into low government investment in non-military research and development and poor coordination of anti-trust, trade, education and training policies.
The report notes the areas in which the U.S. is strong, competitive or weak and makes recommendations for getting back on track:
* Making technology leadership a national priority, from the White House on down through the federal bureaucracy.
* Developing federal and state policies and programs to assure that this country has a world-class technology infrastructure.
* Boosting the sharing of technology within U.S. industry to help compete in world markets.
* Revising U.S. firms' goals to meet and surpass commercialization practices of offshore competitors, benchmarking competitors to see how well their own efforts stand up.
* Keeping basic research strong, but strengthening ties between universities and industry to make education and research programs more effectively support real technology and personnel needs.
Not everything in this report will happen, and certainly not without serious debate in Congress and at local levels. Coming from such a broad, high-powered group, however, assurances are that much that is recommended will be achieved, in a coordinated way. Now it's time to get rolling.