EVEN AS the trade deficit soars to a record $150 billion, the U.S. is funding a multibillion-dollar program that effectively sells the best of America's computer and engineering research to its Japanese and European competition for less than 50 cents on the dollar.
Not a bad deal -- if you're a Hitachi, Daewoo or a Siemens AG looking for a technical edge in today's competitive global marketplace.
What kind of policy is it that subsidizes America's corporate rivals with millions of dollars worth of our vital research?
It's the foreign policy practiced by America's leading research universities.
According to National Science Foundation statistics, nearly half the engineering and computer science graduate students in this country are from overseas; nearly half of them will return to the countries and companies that sponsored them. There they will apply their newly acquired knowledge to kick the stuffing out of U.S. companies.
These best and brightest minds will have studied in America the latest in semiconductor technology; the best ways to create new design software; the intricacies of developing novel composite materials for autombiles and airplanes. Expressly selected by their governments or companies to learn at America's finest universities, many of these students will become the captains of overseas industries.
Now, it's terrific that U.S. universities define the state of the art in so many engineering disciplines and that this country encourages the international exchange of research and a free flow of information.
But let's not confuse a free flow of information with an unwitting policy of subsidizing the research-and-development efforts of Japan, Korea and Europe.
Take, for example, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, one of the finest engineering schools in the country.
According to the University's 1985 figures, there are 1,452 graduate students enrolled in Michigan's College of Engineering; 751 -- more than half -- are foreign students.
"Out-of-state" students (which is what foreign students are considered) pay tuition of approximately $7,916 per year -- "less than half" of the yearly cost of training a graduate engineering student, according to a Michigan spokesman.
Who makes up that eight-grand-per-student annual shortfall? Why, U.S. and Michigan taxpayers do. Ironically, so do American corporations like General Motors and Ford -- which help fund Michigan's research in science and engineering. They help pay to train the very engineers who will end up competing with them back in Japan, Korea and Germany.
What entitles Japan or Korea to an American subsidy for higher education? More explictly, why should a Michigan or an Ilinois charge the government-sponsored grad student from Tokyo the same as the kid from Toledo? Should out-of-state and out-of-nation be treated the same way?
If, as many in the university community believe, the answer is yes -- then let's have a rationale that goes a bit beyond "promoting the free flow of information."
The university structure was built with American tax dollars. The U.S. has chosen -- rightly -- to make its universities a resource for the world. But the world has changed dramatically in the last decade. The lines between pure and applied research have blurred; universities, now more than ever, are seen as a source of commercial innovation.
What is the compelling reason for American taxpayers to subsidize Cadillac-quality education for foreign students at Toyota-like prices? Especially since many of those students will end up competing directly with American companies?
"History shows that the Japanese students get more 'rubber on the road' [practical applications of what they've learned] when they get back home," said James Williams, dean of Carnegie-Mellon's College of Engineering.
The issue here is not banning foreign students or placing import quotas on them -- it's eliminating a free ride for this country's economic competition. It's making countries and companies that can afford to pay for the value of a graduate education pay the full and fair price.
Tuition and fees aside, there a numerous ways foreign countries and companies could show their support for the U.S. research institutions they patronize. They could give donations or help fund research programs.
What of the Japanese, Korean and European donations to Michigan, for example?
"Virtually none," said M. Joseph Roverson, director of corporate relations for the University.
In fact, a "not intended for release" National Science Foundation inquiry of over 100 leading research universities reveals that total foreign contributions to universities accounted for less than 2 percent of their research budgets.
"It's very unlikely that the amount exeeded 1 percent," said an NSF researcher, who asked not to be named.
Even if one excludes funds for national-security related research, the percentage of foreign contributions is still disproportionately low compared to the numbers of foreign graduate students now in the U.S. There's the distinct aroma of foreign freeloading on the campus.
Now, there are institutions that benefit from foreign largesse. The Massachusetts Institute of technology has 12 professorial chairs endowed by Japanese companies and has enjoyed millions of dollars in research support over the years.
"We get most of our graduate students sponsored by industries in Japan," said Eugene Chamberlain, an MIT associate dean and international student adviser.
However, even at MIT, total foreign funding of research represents barely 2 percent of the total. Roughly 29 percent of MIT's grad students are from overseas.
But the MITs are the exceptions, not the rule. The fact remains that American universities are seemingly neutral in the global economic competition -- as ready to subsidize a Korean or Taiwanese company as one in the U.S.
(One notable exception is Pittsburgh's top-flight Carnegie-Mellon, which declines to accept Japanese funds and "restricts" the number of Japanese grad students precisely because it is concerned about technology transfer).
Believers in the subsidy argue that many of these foreign students remain in the U.S. and that American companies can reap the benefit of their training. That is certainly true.
However, how do U.S. industry benefits balance with the potential problems? Does the U.S. keep the best of these post-graduate engineers or do the best ones go back to the Thomson CSFs, Matsushitas and Hyundais?
Academics assert that foreign students have become an indispensable part of the university research establishment; teaching undergraduates and assisting in research. That may also be true. On the other hand, does charging a full price for an education mean that the number of foreign students will drop dramatically? Or will it more likely spark a sheepish recognition that overseas companies have been cream-skimming off the investments made by American taxpayers?
Foreign countries and companies should be required to pay a fair price for the educational benefits they receive from American universities. Moreover, countries which send thousands of grad students and "research associates" to the U.S. should be compelled to fund non-proprietary research projects in the U.S.
These suggestions should not imply a form of intellectual or academic protectionism; there should continue to be an international exchange of information. But U.S. policy makers and universities should recognize that while it is wise to encourage an international research effort for the betterment of all; it is foolish and counterproductive to let potential partners in that endeavor behave as parasites.