Even though Columbia Pictures didn't make the movie, Sony Corp.'s Akio Morita should pop the Beta version of "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" into his VCR. He should pay particular attention to the scene where Walter Huston tells Humphrey Bogart that, now that they have mined the mountain of its gold, they have to fix it up. "This mountain's been good to us," he says, and they owe it to the mountain to make it whole.
Morita, who was quick to chide Americans for short-term thinking in his book "The Japan That Can Say No," would immediately get the point. Japan, to its great credit, has relentlessly and successfully mined America's great research base. For decades, Japan has sent its best and brightest young minds to America's top research universities, the National Institutes of Health and the national labs -- tapping into the largest tax-supported research infrastructure in the world. There is absolutely no question that this open access to knowledge has made a tremendous contribution to Japan's ability to compete so successfully in so many global markets.
If Japan really cares about assuming its rightful place as a global leader, if that nation wants to be a genuine collaborator in the creation of knowledge, it has to put in as much -- or more -- than it has taken out. The time has come for Japan to behave like a nation that has the gumption to invest its wealth in basic scientific research as willingly as it is prepared to snap up a Van Gogh or a Rockefeller Center.
It's not enough that the Sonys, Hitachis and Fujitsus spend billions on proprietary research and development -- that's nothing but pure economic nationalism. The fact is that Japan's research and development infrastructure, unlike America's, revolves around commercial interests: It is less interested in replenishing the world's endowment of intellectual capital than in capturing new ideas and techniques and turning them into profitable products. And why not? As things currently stand, Japan's top companies can often get the best of U.S. research for less than 20 cents on the dollar. That's a pretty good deal. In economics, this phenomenon of capitalizing on others' research on the cheap is called "the free rider." In biology, it's called parasitism.
In the United States, the government provides nearly 46 percent of the nation's research and development budget; in Japan, the government contribution barely touches 20 percent -- and most of that sum goes more to development.
What's more, Japan's university system lacks the research tradition and initiative that mark America's top schools such as the California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley. Structurally, culturally and financially, Japan has evolved into a net consumer, rather than a producer, of knowledge. That's all very well and good for Japan's economy but it makes Japan's incessant complaining about America's consumption of goods a little annoying.
Even in health-care research for its own people, Japan is a laggard. America spends more than $6.3 billion on the National Institutes of Health -- one of the great medical research institutions of the world -- and even that's not enough to support some truly excellent research proposals.
In Japan, which has been one of the world's most prosperous countries for more than a decade, there's nothing even remotely like an NIH, and medical researchers are starved for funds. Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg, who has been encouraging Japan to create its own counterpart to NIH, reports that the total budget for all government kakenhi -- research grants -- is "only 10 percent of Toyota's annual profits and 15 percent of the annual budget for research and development in a typical electronics company."
"They used to plead, 'We're a poor country,' " says Kornberg, a Stanford University biochemistry professor who's been in touch with top Japanese science officials for years. "Now they tell me they're helpless in the face of a bureaucracy."
Nevertheless, Kornberg claims to be "optimistic" that Japan will live up to both its financial and intellectual responsibilities. Indeed, his fellow Nobel laureate, James Watson, who is overseeing this country's huge Human Genome Initiative to map the galaxy of human genetic code sequences, is energetically -- some say aggressively -- pushing the Japanese to give money and human resources to the project. These gene sequences would be the raw material for millions of medical insights and innovations. Shouldn't Japan be willing, if not eager, to be a partner in this endeavor? Or would Japan prefer to reap the benefits without the burden of the costs?
After National Academy of Science President Frank Press proposed this past spring that Japan make a significant investment in America's basic research infrastructure, he reported that many Japanese were astonished. "They said, 'Aren't you embarrassed, a great nation like you, to go around with your hat in your hand?' " he recalls.
It takes real zuzushii -- the Japanese word for chutzpah -- to say something like that. Japan's scientific establishment has been on the U.S. dole for so long that it acts as though it's entitled to this subsidy. Press said more in sorrow than in anger, that if Japan's leaders don't wise up, Congress is going to find a way to turn this into a trade issue. Indeed, National Science Foundation Director Erich Bloch once actually threatened to deny Japanese researchers access to the U.S. national labs if Japan didn't make its laboratories more open to Americans.
Yes, Japan can point to a few chairs that its companies have endowed at places like MIT, as well as something called the Human Frontiers Program in science that has all of a $20 million endowment. But that's just a few grains of rice.
For its own interest -- if not the world's -- Japan should be willing to make matching grants in key areas of biology, materials research, physics and other domains to U.S. universities, the NIH and the national labs in sums up to at least $200 million a year. There are more than 40,000 Japanese in the United States listed under the category of "foreign study, research and training." That works out to $5,000 per person per year. Given the billions that American taxpayers shell out each year to fund basic research, that hardly strikes me as unreasonable. Indeed, it takes a lot of zuzushii to explain why Japan hasn't already offered to be as willing to contribute as it is to consume. Indeed, here is a wonderful opportunity for Japan to demonstrate that it can craft ingenious funding initiatives to match its ingenuity in technological products.
I want to stress that even if Japan gave our basic research infrastructure a cool $1 billion a year, I don't think it would affect our global competitiveness one whit. As America has already discovered, a great research base doesn't necessarily translate into world-class competitive products. The issue here isn't the global marketplace -- it's the continued viability of our treasures, our intellectual and scientific gold mines. Our research infrastructure is a global resource, but countries that assiduously mine it should be prepared to help keep it whole. Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.