RONALD REAGAN personally addressed 2,000 businessmen, engineers and scientists who gathered in Washington last week to discuss commercial applications of a newly-discovered class of superconductors. These are materials that lose all resistance to the flow of electrical current when cooled below a "critical temperature."
The president's presence symbolized the government's determination to slug it out with the Japanese in the commercialization of this dazzling new technology. That's good. But the president began with a line he has used before: "I have to confess that I am one of those people who, when the government offers to help, get very nervous."
I had exactly the same reaction when he described the "help" the administration had in mind. There was much to praise in the speech, but three things troubled me. It ignored the international nature of superconductor development. It proposed to funnel much of the government's research effort through the Department of Defense. And it raised the specter of increased government secrecy.
First of all, superconductor research has been an international effort from its very inception. It is a modern parable of the progress that can be made in the absence of nationalistic barriers. A new superconducting material was discovered by scientists in Zurich a little over a year ago. Unlike previously known superconductors, which are metals, it was a ceramic -- and its criticial temperature was the highest ever seen. The Swiss team published the full details of their work in an international journal. Among those who read their paper were scientists in Tokyo and Beijing. Within a few months, both groups had confirmed the Zurich results. The race was on.
The next big breaththrough came a few weeks later from the University of Houston. A group of Chineseand Chinese-American scientists in Houston discovered a change in composition that raised the critical temperature higher still. People began to talk seriously about the prospect of superconductivity at room temperature. The commerical and scientific implications are staggering. The critical temperature continues to rise as important discoveries come from Berkeley, Paris, Karlsruhe and dozens of other sites around the world.
Even before the president spoke, however, a tiny cloud had already appeared over this scene of international cooperation. The president's science adviser made the decision to exclude foreign officials from the Washington meeting -- though the foreign press was allowed to cover it in detail.
The gloom deepened when the president announced that DOD would lead a $150-million R&D effort in superconductors. It is no secret that this conference was motivated by the fear that the Japanese would get to the marketplace first with commercial applications. But it is thoroughly wrong-headed to rely on DOD to counter that threat.
The Japanese, after all, have no military research or development worth mentioning -- and yet they've been eating our lunch in high-technology sales. And what about the Sovet Union, our No.-1 military competitor? The "evil empire" is a pussycat in the world's high-tech markets. There is simply no coorelation to be found between a nation's spending on military research and its strength in private-sector markets.
Moreover, the president's own Commission on Industrial Competitiveness in its 1985 report concluded that DOD is a "net consumer" of new technologies. What they're saying is that military development relies on spin-offs from civilian research -- and not the other way around! Our high-tech edge over the Soviets, the real basis of our national security, stems from the creative energies of IBM, Bell Labs, Texas Instruments and scores of other companies striving to make a profit in a ruthlessly competitive private-sector economy -- not from coddled government contractors with their cost overruns and $600 toilet seats.
Finally, military developments, even if they have the potential to benefit the private sector, are necessarily cloaked in secrecy, delaying their use for civilian purposes beyond the period in which they might confer some advantage.
Yet the president wants more secrecy. "We must also move to protect intellectual property," Reagan said last Tuesday, "and write protections into the Freedom of Information Act for scientific and technical information generated by government laboratories." Government secrecy could strangle this infact technology in its crib.
Progress in this field has been rapid because nothing has been held back. Scientists are not even waiting for the slow pace of publication in professional journals. Long-distance phone lines around the world buzz with the results of dozens of new experiments. Express mail packets carry samples of new materials from on laboratory to another. Foreign graduate students traveling to and from the United States are pressed into service as couriers.
In fact, only one segment of the industrialized world seems to have been left at the starting blocks. The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies have played almost no part in what has become the most exciting scientific quest in decades. No one sought to exclude thenm. They are simply weighted down with travel restrictions and bureaucratic restraints on contact with foreigners and a suspicion even of telephones and copying machines. Soviet scientists, who are the equal of any in the world, cannot compete in this sort of foot race.
By all means, let's take on the Japanese. There is plenty the governmewnt can do, as the president suggested. We should, as he proposed, reform our patent and antitrust laws to reflect the profound changes in technology and the rise of a world economy. The president reiterated his proposal to double the budget of the National Science Foundation. He might consider taking the funds from the bloated R&D budget of the Defense Department which now controls about three-fourths of all federal R&D.
But let's keep the process open. We don't do secrecy very well in this country anyway -- the Soviets are much better at it. And that is why they are dead last in the superconductor race.
Robert L. Park, professor of physics at the University of Maryland, is director of the Washington office of The American Physical Society.