If General Motors Corp. spent $75 million to bring a team of Japanese quality control specialists to Detroit to teach the auto giant how to build better cars, should the Asahi Shimbun newspaper call those experts economic traitors? Would medical researchers from the prestigious Pasteur Institute be betraying France if they accepted a $2.5 million contract from Stanford University to help the school set up a state-of-the-art AIDS research facility?
Silly questions? Apparently not. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world's premier research universities, has come under fire for agreeing to a $10 million contract to help a Japanese university set up its own version of MIT's Media Lab -- the school's multidisciplinary research facility exploring new media technologies ranging from computational holography to high-definition television.
The fear, underscored in a New York Times front-page story this week, is that this effort will undermine U.S. economic competitiveness by enabling the Japanese to create more innovative research environments. Once the Japanese learn how to emulate places like MIT's Media Lab, the argument goes, it's "lights out" for American industry. America will be buried beneath a tsunami of Japanese creativity.
The clear implication is that what may be good for MIT is bad for America and it's economically dangerous to improve Japan's ability to do basic research. American universities are betraying their country if they aid the transfer of technology abroad.
That perspective isn't just cynically jingoistic; it's intellectually dishonest. Carry this perspective to its logical conclusion and the policy mandate is clear: Forbid the Japanese from studying at MIT, Stanford, the California Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley and Carnegie-Mellon University because that's where a lot of technology transfer takes place. Don't let the Koreans, Taiwanese and Germans in to learn computer science and molecular biology, either, because we also economically compete with their countries.
Is this country so pitifully weak, so entrepreneurially gutless and so economically paranoid that we feel the costs of sharing knowledge outweigh the benefits? Do Americans genuinely believe that the future of industrial competitiveness rests more with hoarding knowledge than creating it?
"To think that you have to hide knowledge and make it proprietary in order to compete is selling Americans short," asserts Richard Cyert, the recently retired president of Carnegie-Mellon.
In fact, Cyert notes, there's nothing unique about the MIT situation. Carnegie-Mellon, one of the nation's best research schools, was approached last year to help Japan's Keio University set up a graduate research program in computer science.
"The answer was a strong, affirmative yes," says Cyert, who adds that the details have yet to be ironed out.
What's striking to me, as someone who spent a year as a visiting scholar at the Media Lab, is how the knee-jerk jingoism obscures the truly important questions facing Japan and America as the two countries simultaneously cooperate and compete in the global marketplace.
Does Japan's status-oriented culture and rigid educational infrastructure lend itself to replicating the kind of lunatic, grad-school-students-on-bytes research environment you find at the Media Lab? Basic research isn't just a set of algorithmic techniques -- it's a cultural style. How much does Japan have to change if the society wants to be on the cutting edge of basic research?
"If, by basic research, you mean a way of exploring and a style of thinking, it takes a great deal more than a contract with MIT to acquire it," says Media Lab Director Nicholas Negroponte.
The Japanese are doing something that too few American companies are doing these days: taking a chance. There are no guarantees that Nihon University's efforts to build its own Media Lab will work -- but the school is prepared to take a chance. Just as U.S. companies admire and want to learn from Japanese production techniques, the Japanese admire and want to learn about creative discovery from America's top research institutions.
"The Japanese are very serious about becoming more creative as a nation," says Sheridan Tatsuno, author of "Created in Japan," a book about Japan's efforts to boost its IQ -- innovation quotient. "They're spending hundreds of millions of dollars building high-tech playgrounds for their researchers."
The hypocritical irony of all this is that, even as critics whine about MIT giving away America's crown jewels, only a relative handful of large American companies -- like International Business Machines Corp., Du Pont Co., Apple Computer Inc., Digital Equipment Corp. and Merck & Co. -- are actively involved in technology transfer with top research universities. The critics seem more interested in denying access to Japanese industry than getting U.S. industry to take advantage of the research banquet that can be found in universities coast to coast.
When I was at the Media Lab, I was appalled by the lack of participation by the lab's American sponsors compared with the Japanese sponsors. "There should be hundreds of U.S. companies battling to take the technologies out of that lab and commercializing them, but there aren't," Tatsuno says.
Should we blame the Japanese for that, too? Sorry, the real story here isn't that MIT is working with a Japanese university to build a lab -- it's that more American companies like Sun Microsystems Inc., Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Pfizer Inc. aren't collaborating creatively with places like MIT. The Japanese are smart enough to know they don't have a monopoly on creativity; most American companies aren't. You would think that U.S. companies would take advantage of world-class research opportunities in their back yard. Overwhelmingly, they don't. The Japanese do.
There's no question that Japan and the United States are economic rivals and that American universities need to think carefully about what their technology-transfer policies should be. No company or country -- Japan in particular -- should get something for nothing. But to assert that it's inappropriate for an MIT or a Stanford to help a Japan or Korea build a new research facility misses the point about both industrial competitiveness and the role of the university in a world where knowledge is global, not national.
That Americans express fear about the MIT deal says far more about U.S. weaknesses than Japan's strengths. I'm ashamed.
Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.