WASHINGTON — Washington. -- George Bush regularly praises and courts the barons of high-tech industry as the builders of America's future. But little federal cash or political support for industrial research has accompanied his pleasant talk to this predominantly Republican constituency. Now we're seeing the beginning of what may turn into a mass defection by corporate executives drawn by Bill Clinton's promises of high-tech activism by the federal government.
Senior executives of some 30 Silicon Valley companies recently met with Governor Clinton to endorse his program for a close and well-financed collaboration between the government's research organizations and industrial firms. The Clinton plan contrasts sharply with the Bush administration's past expressions of abhorrence for what it calls ''industrial policy'' -- shorthand for close ties between industry and federal agencies.
The Silicon Valley meeting, first in a series, the Clinton campaigners say, was highlighted by the participation of two heretofore Republican eminences of the computer industry, John Sculley, chief of Apple Computer Inc., and John A. Young, his counterpart at Hewlett-Packard.
From 1986 to 1991, Mr. Young spent a good deal of time in Washington as chairman of the non-governmental Council on Competitiveness, a consortium of high-tech companies and big universities. Though the council addressed many issues, it particularly focused on strengthening the industrial sector through closer ties with the federal government's multi-billion-dollar research enterprise.
As with so many other domestic matters prior to the re-election campaign, the Bush administration expressed little or no interest in such matters, insisting that Washington shouldn't get closely involved with industrial research. Two years ago, when a senior Pentagon research official invoked a little-known statute to help a pioneering electronics firm keep from foundering, the White House decreed his ouster.
When it was reported that the president's science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, had persuaded the Mr. Bush to tolerate a bit more coziness between government and industrial research, the White House put out a statement saying it wasn't so.
Commerce Department programs for promoting research collaboration among industrial firms were denied all but token sums in the early days of the Bush administration. They're faring better today, but only because Congress led the way in providing money.
Meanwhile, reports have been pouring out, from the Council on Competitiveness and from the government's own agencies, arguing for federal assistance for industrial research. A recent report by the National Science Board -- the board of directors of the U.S. National Science Foundation -- observed that only two-tenths of 1 percent ''of the U.S. federal R&D budget is directed at R&D of direct relevance to commercial technology.'' In Japan the comparable figure is 8 percent; in Germany, 19 percent.
While competitor nations concentrate their research spending on commercial goals, the U.S. government still devotes half its R&D budget to defense. Government laboratories, civilian and military, consume about $20 billion a year. Despite White House claims of a new era of government-industrial collaboration, very little spin-off from federal research reaches the civilian economy, according to a new report by the Council on Competitiveness.
The report notes that the National Institute for Standards and Technology, ''which is the only federal lab whose principal mission is to assist industry, accounts for less than 1 percent of the total Federal lab budget.''
After three years of deliberate indifference masked by minor diversions and inspiring oratory, the White House is a Johnny-come-lately convert to government responsibility for promoting industrial research. Conferences are being held around the country to tell industrial firms about technical assistance available at government research centers.
And the White House has pledged assistance for research on advanced manufacturing methods -- a weak point in American industry. But these last-minute cosmetic ploys don't fool the experts.
When the chiefs of Silicon Valley declared for Bill Clinton, they were telling George Bush that battlefield conversions don't count.
Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.