In the public debate stoking up over the course of America's industrial future, the antagonists represent the high-tech, "Buck Rogers" school of industrial planning or those who want to cling to the heavy "smokestack industries" of the past.

E. G. Jefferson, chairman of one of the larger and elder industries of the "smokestack" category--E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.--and a relatively new entrant into the debate, sees a better path between the two.

In a series of recent speeches and in an interview last week, Jefferson made clear that he believes America's core industries can become high tech and provide the basis for new job creation in services or in emerging industries.

"I start off with two questions. If you have service industries but lack a healthy agricultural or industrial economy, who are they going to serve? It's like that old expression, 'They earned a precarious living taking in one another's laundry,' " he said, using a line from former AFL-CIO president George Meany.

"Then I think about the concept of high technology, and I ask myself, what is that? For instance, is a steel plant that is highly automated, with the most modern instrumentation, data reduction, controls, use of robots for product handling, is that high tech? I suspect it is."

Science and engineering propelled U.S. industries in the years they were growing and exporting, Jefferson maintains. "It was know-how, the better mousetrap.

"That hasn't gone forever at all. In many areas it still exists, and the potential ability in some of the areas where, for the moment, we have fallen behind, still remains."

Jefferson said he believes that the national defense, job considerations and the need to provide a basis for more advanced industries all require the nurturing of basic industries in the United States. "I strongly believe we have a national stake in protecting them."

The worst choice for the nation, he said, would be to remain "just a captive of recent history" or "to give up," when it is entirely possible "to restore" heavy industries to their position of dominance.

"What I'm saying is that a steel plant can be as high tech as anything there is. I would go a step further and say it should be, because it's only those industries that have really ensured their international competitive position."

Above all, he said, "we're talking about jobs." To the extent that the movement of people away from the core industries is a product of operating those industries more efficiently, "I say three cheers. That is exactly what you want to do. That says you are the most productive."

In that situation, moving workers into other activities "makes all kinds of sense," said Jefferson. "But to discard a core industry and have the people who were engaged in that industry with no place to go bothers me. Maybe something will come along and maybe it won't."

The analogy that Jefferson uses most frequently is American agriculture when the country was becoming industrialized. Agriculture was not abandoned but became more productive and less labor intensive. The workers leaving farming were made available for industrial jobs.

During the three decades when the technological revolution was shrinking the ranks of agricultural workers, nonfarm jobs increased by 77 percent, absorbing much of the displaced work force.

He says that the way to bring people from the present core industries into service activities or to new types of industries is not to shut them down, but to increase the productivity in those industries through research, engineering and investment in modernization.

"People say, what are you going to do about an industry that is sick?" Jefferson said. "I think the answer to that is we have to react to that just as we've reacted to problems in agriculture over the years. We've been unwilling to say, well, if agriculture's sick, let it go to the wall and we'll buy our food from someplace else."

There are industries so basic to the nation's economic health, including steel and other heavy metal manufacturing, heavy chemicals and energy, he said, that "if you have a piece of this that's ailing, I think you have to be prepared to take extraordinary steps to ensure its restoration." Du Pont is in two of those businesses, as a manufacturer of bulk chemicals and the operator of Conoco.

Jefferson uses Du Pont as an example of the ability to fuse basic industrial manufacturing and high technology.

"We've been making nylon since the World's Fair back before World War II," he said. "The product has developed, has been improved in many ways over the years, but it is a long established business of ours. It has been for well over 40 years.

"The facilities to make it have been through many, many modernizations since we first started to make it, and, just the beginning of this year, we started up a new plant in Victoria, Texas, to make one of the main ingredients of nylon," he said.

The plant is run by modern electronic controls with computer data reduction and involves modern materials handling by robots. Although nylon fibers are maybe 40 to 45 years old, the plants that are making the ingredients and are making the fiber are high tech.

With modernization, Du Pont's fiber production is "about double what it was 10 years ago, and we have only 5 percent more people," he said. "That's the kind of modernization I'm talking about."

The future of the U.S. petrochemical industry lies in high technology specialty products, according to most analysts. "We strive to make products that maximize the value added to all the materials we work on," he said. "We have, however, the strong conviction that part of what we do is the production of commodity-like materials, where we can be very successful, provided we are efficient" and keep prices low on an international basis. The lines between those two can blur quickly, he added.

Kevlar, which is used for bullet-proof vests, helmets, ropes for securing offshore platforms and tire reinforcement, is one of the company's newest specialty products. "It's a high technology specialty fiber in one sense, but in another sense, we've put in a large plant to make it," Jefferson said. He expects a multitude of uses to be discovered for the product.

Although Jefferson balks at protectionism, he said he favors a tougher negotiating stance on the question of nontariff barriers because "the rules of the road should be fair." He favors a government policy of encouraging investment overseas, which he said can help build demand for U.S. manufactured products.

About a third of Du Pont's business (with the exception of its Conoco operations) is conducted overseas, he said. About half of that is exports from the United States. "The positive balance of trade for the chemical industry for the past half-dozen years has been greater than $10 billion a year, and that is one favorable--very, very favorable--balance of trade."

Jefferson linked that to research. "Of all the basic research done by industries, the chemical industry has been doing about 35 percent of it," he said.

"I think industrial policy shouldn't be planning in detail, it should be establishing conditions that allow the private sector to accomplish the goals that are needed. I wouldn't do it by having government plan the program and its execution.".

Jefferson said the more proper role for the government is to encourage research and development, including greater cooperation between the nation's universities and business, to encourage international trade, to provide predictability in the areas of taxation, regulation and interest rates, to cooperate with business in providing job training and to boost modernization by encouraging capital expenditures.

Improving the nation's position in international trade will take time, "just as it took some time to go the other direction," he said. "If you look at how long the seeds of loss of competitive position were germinating, it's a considerable period of time, so it takes some time to go back the other way, but I have a conviction that it can be done.

"I don't see the likelihood of a world in which the only employment here is in the very latest thing that has come out of the laboratory, and if it's been around very long, it's fugitive and goes somewhere else," he said. "That doesn't make much sense to me, and it's certainly not a very secure world."