President Reagan, who said in his State of the Union address that high-technology industries are a vital component of the nation's future economic health, aligned himself with local business leaders and politicians across the nation who are preaching "high-tech" as the source of new jobs that will bring economic salvation.
But yesterday, on a journey into the high-tech heartland outside Boston, the president heard from Dimitri V. d'Arbeloff, chairman of the Millipore Corp. and a high-tech pioneer, that it's one thing to talk about high-tech industry and another to create it or attract it.
"If you are saying, can we run a Xerox copy of Massachusetts and plunk it down anywhere in the country, the answer is no in the short run," d'Arbeloff said before Reagan's arrival. "You can't just display the flag and say it's going to happen. But in the long run, it can be done. The environment that has to be created is one that requires the academic community, the business community and government to work together."
He and other experts agree that development of high-technology and research centers requires a difficult combination of high-quality education, sophisticated investment capital, government incentives, and attractive surroundings, and even with all that they cannot become an economic mainstay for every region.
Even in Massachusetts, where the concentration along the Rte. 128 corridor rivals California's Silicon Valley on what Reagan called "the frontier of high technology," less than 9 percent of the work force is employed in this sector of the economy. According to figures provided by the State Employment Service, about 231,000 persons in Massachusetts' work force of 3 million are employed in the state's high-tech industries--down from a pre-recession figure of more than 240,000.
The difficulty of developing major employment centers in the electronics, biomedical and communications industries usually lumped together as high-tech does not diminish their holy-grail appeal to communities that need them.
Missouri's Gov. Christopher Bond, for example, will be in Washington next week, urging guests at a cocktail party to "consider Missouri for your next high-technology profit center."
In Birmingham, Ala., where the economy has been hard hit by the decline of the steel industry, local leaders are trying to capitalize on the lure of the University of Alabama medical center to develop a research center rivaling the Research Triangle in North Carolina.
In Arizona, Gov. Bruce Babbitt personally intervened in the operations of Arizona State University to beef up the engineering curriculum, in an effort to attract investment by such companies as Motorola and Honeywell.
The more such efforts are undertaken, students of the affected industries say, the more they will compete with each other and the smaller will be the slice of the pie.
"You will create a whole lot of overcapacity in these new industries," said Harvey Brooks, Benjamin Pierce professor of technology and public policy at Harvard. "There is only so much need for them. They are going to be an important ingredient in the economy, but if every town and region tries to do this, along with the Europeans moving in the same direction, we'll be bumping into each other."
High-tech growth is also limited by a nationwide shortage of the scientists and engineers who invent the processes and develop the manufacturing techniques that create new jobs for rank and file workers. The American Electronics Association reported a year ago that "just to meet the needs of electronics, education must triple its output of electrical engineering and computer science engineers in the next five years."
But because academic salaries are generally not competitive with those in private industry, engineers and scientists who like to teach tend to bunch up in areas where there is a strong tradition of academic-industry cooperation, as there is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Stanford.
"If you go back in the history of Massachusetts," d'Arbeloff said, "you will find an academic community that was supportive, and a tradition of venture capital investment. The fact that MIT is there is a critical element." Communities such as San Antonio, Tex., which lack major research universities, are severely handicapped in their quest for high-tech investment.
In his State of the Union address, Reagan said his administration was "committed to keeping America the technological leader of the world." But he said nothing about a financial commitment to do so. According to Harvard's Brooks, however, federal research seed money is indispensable. Even at MIT, "80 percent of all the money they spend on research comes from the federal government," Brooks said.
D'Arbeloff said his message for Reagan was that the federal government should revise its tax structure to eliminate or delay capital gains taxes, thus supporting long-term investment in research, and should provide matching grants to industry to support research programs devised by the corporations, not by "establishing a bureaucracy." graphics/photo: President Reagan looks at computer in the Opportunities Industrialization Center in Boston with instructor Cleo Carroll, left. UPI