THE MASSACHUSETTS Institute of Technology went shopping for a supercomputer this year, solicited bids and found that the two most attractive were for Japanese-made machines. Before it could conclude a deal, though, it got a letter from Buce Smart, the undersecretary of commerce for international trade, warning that the Japanese products might be subject to anti-dumping legislation and, thus, added duties on the price. MIT got the point, and so did the companies, which withdrew their bids. MIT has now put its supercomputer plans temporarily on hold.

Did the low Japanese offer constitute "dumping?" In fact, it is widespread practice for computer companies here and abroad to offer attractive start-up deals to universities. The benefits of training a generation of academic scientists on one's own system, rather than on a competitor's, are obvious. Selling or leasing a supercomputer to MIT would not only put a company's system on display, it would also mean a generation's worth of software written for that system by some of the world's best scientific minds. The Commerce Department is worried lest the U.S. supercomputer industry lose its technological edge over Japan -- an edge that lies more in software than in machine power -- in a worldwide supercomputer market that is expected to grow enormously. That Commerce would lean a little on MIT to buy American is therefore not too surprising.

It is, however, a little embarrassing. Just last summer the United States concluded a tough agreement in which the Japanese reluctantly opened their government procurement process -- which in Japan, unlike here, includes the universities -- to allow American supercomputers to compete on a fair basis. At the time, the United States could plausibly argue that its procurement process followed the same rules, since the military is required by statute to pick the cheapest bid. Recently, though, when the Defense Department was found to have adhered to that policy and bought Japanese machines for budgetary reasons, people on the Hill kicked up a fuss, causing defense officials to declare their procedure to be "under review."

There are some respects in which the U.S. companies that make only supercomputers are at a disadvantage when bidding against the broader-based Japanese companies, which can take a loss on one product to break into a market. Rather than confronting such questions, supercomputer companies have let the government apply buy-American pressure on their behalf. Free-market forces are supposed to induce companies in such a situation to explore ways of competing more effectively, whether by grouping into consortia, as some high-tech manufacturers are experimentally doing, or by making their products more attractive abroad, as IBM, for example, has successfully done. By contrast, depriving research universities of the equipment they themselves have determined represents the right ratio of price to capability is a peculiar way of ensuring continued technological dominance. It is equally bad for this country's reputation for the kind of fair play it demands from its trading competitors.