Like a schoolyard brawler pressed to explain a beating by a skinny kid, some of the giants of American industry have lately been complaining that industrial competitors abroad benefit from national research policies that are not available here. And, accordingly, they have taken to a decorous version of tin-cup rattling, appealing to the federal government to help restore their fading primacy in the world's high-technology marketplaces.
Though the proposed remedies vary according to particular plights, some of the leading ones call for boosting the university-based research that frequently underlies industrial applications, curbs on exporting American know-how, easing of consumer-protection requirements that often absorb a lot of research, and often absorb a lot of research, and relaxation of antitrust regulations that discourage industrial research collaboration. Japan, is is pointed out, is investing $300 million in a centrally directed effort to "leapfrog" American micro-electronics capabilities, and West Germany has pinpointed several advanced technology areas for intense research efforts. Unfetter our research potential, American industry is saying, and good old Yankee inventiveness will be back in the game, highly competitive with foreign firms whose governments are sensitive and sympathetic to their research needs.
These arguments have been offered by such industrial research leaders as William O. Baker, president of Bell Laboratories, and J. Fred Bucy, president of Texas instruments. And, through frequent reiteration, unaccompanied by matching critical evaluation, they have permeated government thinking to the point where federal research planners, with rare exception, have bought the industry case.
What seems to have gone unnoted along the way, however, is that after long years of international dominance - amply subsidized by a huge federal research investment that ranges from universities to industry - major segments of American business long ago departed from the spirit of Yankee inventiveness. In the short-term quest for an appealing bottom line, industry after industry, including such firms as DuPont and several major steel manufacturers, have severely pared their long-term research expenditures. And though industry is taken at face value when it attaches the attractive label "research" to a given activity, many sophisticated observers simply scoff at what some firms currently pass off as research.
In raw numbers, industrial exployment of scientists and engineers hit a peak in 1969, with 387,000, and since has dropped to 362,000. The decline of the space program accounts for a lot of the falloff, but even in fields far distant from space activities, such as petroleum refining and extraction, the peak, 10,000 in 1969, fell below 9,000 last year.
Having developed a welfare mentality all its own, industry has been conjuring up images of foreign competitors thriving on advantages that are denied to the home team. Among them are alleged to be foreign exploitation of American-devised technologies, which no doubt occurs. But then, the history of modern technology is rich with examples of the reverse, notable among them American exploitation of such foreign developments as the jet engine and antibiotic drugs. Nevertheless, Bucy has sold the Defense Department on a convoluted scheme to bar the sale of certain sophisticated American technological know-how, while permitting the sale of products that embody that know-how. The two-way flow of technology is something that doesn't seem to concern these latter-day mercantilists.
Nor has the academic community paid attention to murmurings about the desirability of barring Sovietbloc students from certain graduate studies in science and engineering. Who's to pass on the true ideological links of our many foreign students? Who's to patrol the fence around academe? Nothing has been said about that publicly as a hidden-away interagency task force deliberates on whether technological protectionism should be made a government-wide policy.
In its anguished pursuit of "business confidence," the Carter administration is loath to tell industry that many of its research woes are of its own making. But the realization is there. Frank Press, the White House science adviser, is a mild-mannered career academic who rarely ever speaks unkindly in public about anything. Last week, however, in an address to an IBM group, he said, "I have met with a number of industry officials to listen to their problems and, while I am sympathetic with much of what they say, I am left with the feeling that they are overly negative and defensive. I would hope that while we are at work figuring out what government can do to improve the situation, industry will do some hard thinking on the matter and come up with some positive new ideas and programs also."
The hope, unfortunately, is not likely to be fulfilled.