Knowledge Drain

June 06, 1991|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. In the volumes of statistics on Japanese-American relations, there's a little-noted set of numbers that foreshadow more difficulties for this country than even the doomsayers are predicting: In ever greater numbers, Japanese scientists, engineers and other specialists are visiting the United States to participate in research, while relatively few Americans are going to Japan for that purpose.

Why does it matter? Because the intricacies of science and technology are best mastered through person-to-person contact. Scientific and technical journals are useful for reporting the latest findings. But, in the same way that chefs are better teachers than cookbooks, the best way to acquire scientific knowledge is to work in the labs where it's being produced. And Japanese research organizations are sending their brightest to our best labs.

According to the Japanese Science and Technology Agency, the number of Japanese going to the U.S. for short and long-term research visits rose from 18,000 in 1984 to nearly 70,000 in 1989. The statistics, reported in the British journal Nature, show that in that same period, the number of U.S. researchers going to Japan rose from a mere 3,000 to 5,252.

In a special category of research visits, those to government-owned laboratories -- which are often the leading centers for costly, advanced science -- the tide of visitors was similarly imbalanced. The figures for Japanese coming here showed an increase from 426 to 1,592. The number of American researchers going there rose from 30 to 119.

Are the wily Japanese outfoxing us again? At one time, that was part of the problem, because of restrictions the Japanese imposed on visits to their top research centers. But, four years ago, under protests and threats from the American government, the Japanese began to open their best science to foreign visitors. As a sign of good faith, they even put up money to finance the visits of 50 Americans per year.

The results have been paltry. In the first few years, many of the available spots went unfilled. Intense recruiting by the U.S. government has increased the flow of candidates, but it's evident that working in Japan does not hold a high priority in the career planning of American scientists and engineers.

Some obvious reasons account for that. Language difficulties are formidable, and the recession inclines young professionals to stick close to the home job market. But these drawbacks could be overcome if the U.S. government and industry gave recognition to the importance of learning about the competition from the inside. However, with some exceptions, federal agencies and industrial research organizations do not assign credit to a stint abroad. In fact, there's an old and unfortunate American tradition of looking askance on imported science and technology. It's summarized and well-understood in the business the disdainfully voiced abbreviation NIH -- standing for Not Invented Here.

The Japanese, on the other hand, founded their prosperity on acquiring the best from throughout the world of science and technology and improving upon it. Pilgrimages to the great research centers of Europe and the U.S. are an integral part of career advancement.

Japan's imitative tradition used to afford Westerners an excuse for not attempting to keep up with research in that country. Why bother, when they're just copying us? But the difference is that Japan has progressed to the double strength of emulation and originality. In several fields of research crucial to industry -- including electronics, optics and materials -- Japan holds a solid position on the world's scientific frontiers. What could be better than the capacity to exploit the world's best in combination with home-grown innovation?

The Japanese play rough in many aspects of economic and technical affairs. But they cannot be blamed for our lack of personal contact with their best science.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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