Mixed Signals on Dealing with Japan on Science

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

November 19, 1991|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. - It's too much to expect all contingents of the elephantine U.S. government to sound the same policy tune. Nonetheless, when it comes to scientific dealings with the feared and courted Japanese, the cacophony is thunderous beyond reasonable expectations.

High on the American agenda is the quest for a billion or two dollars from abroad for the world's greatest atom smasher, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), under construction in Texas. The money is needed to fulfill the White House's pledge to anxious scientists and their congressional friends that the costs of the SSC would not harm other research projects.

But as the SSC progresses under tight budget circumstances, it portends havoc for other projects. Europe, hard-pressed by its own research aspirations, has given a clear no to pleas for money. Japan has been cagily non-committal.

And so the president's science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, went to Tokyo recently with a novel proposal. Japan, he urged, should not make a mere donation to the great American SSC. Rather, it should buy in, become part owner and share in the management. The Japanese said they'd think about it.

Meanwhile, an astonishing episode has recently occurred on another front in Japanese-American scientific relations. Fujitsu Ltd., the Japanese electronics firm, offered to donate a $17-million supercomputer to a U.S. government-financed research center in Colorado. While not discounting altruism, we must recognize that the offer reflected a desire for a prominent place in big-league computing in the United States. The gift was declined at the insistence of the U.S. government.

Observing these matters with distaste, Rep. George E. Brown Jr., D-Calif., chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, interprets the refusal as follows: ''We don't want them butting into our supercomputer market.'' He noted that the United States had accepted Japanese gifts of several big computers for tapping into Japanese research literature. ''We are not following a coherent policy,'' says Chairman Brown.

It is difficult to discern a government-wide policy for scientific relations with Japan. On the surface, cooperation thrives in accord with the venerable tradition of the brotherhood of science. For example, some 350 Japanese researchers work in the suburban Washington laboratories of the National Institutes of Health, the world's preeminent center of biomedical and biotechnology research. Japan lags in these commercially important fields and it has great aspirations. NIH proudly states that it is an open institution, dedicated to fighting disease, and welcomes foreign scientists as comrades in arms.

But at another government center, the nearby National Institute of Standards and Technology (formerly the National Bureau of Standards), managers privately acknowledge a courteous form of discrimination against Japanese and German visitors. The issue, of course, is extremely sensitive for Standards and Technology, a prestigious research institution on which the Congress has loaded many new responsibilities for promoting industrial competitiveness. But the NIH open-door policy is not emulated by its neighbor.

The confusion that reigns in scientific relations with Japan is reflected in a recent speech on ''The University of the Twenty-First Century,'' by Harold T. Shapiro, president of Princeton University. Mr. Shapiro noted that ''there is now some feeling that we are not only funding more than our share of the global effort in basic research but allowing it to flow abroad at prices which are disadvantageous to us.''

There's no doubt that Japan has diligently stalked the globe for science that it can turn into market-winning products. But under fire as a predator of science produced in other nations, Japan has responded with offers to become a good citizen of the world of science. It has opened its leading laboratories to foreign visitors. And it has proposed to finance billions of dollars of research worldwide on health, environment and advanced manufacturing techniques.

The American response to these initiatives is illuminating. Considerable difficulty has been encountered in getting American researchers to study or work in Japan for a year or more, even with generous stipends -- financed by the Japanese. Those who return find that their Japanese experience has little value in the American job market.

The offers by the Japanese to finance research abroad have aroused suspicion rather than favorable interest, let alone gratitude. American policymakers are obsessed with the fear of a trick -- even as they pursue a handout for the SSC atom smasher. As Chairman Brown said, ''We are not following a coherent policy.''

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes Science & Government Report, a Washington-based newsletter.

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