Remember Europe's "technology gap" - the late 1960s and early 1970s shorthand reference to American preeminence in scientific research and its industrial application?
The current conventional view in the reigning councils of American government, industrial and academic research is that the gap has been nearly if not altogether closed - as a consequence of U.S. stumbling and European steadfastness in the nurturing and application of research resources. A direct result of this, it's said, is a faltering U.S. performance in export markets, which feeds a trade deficit, which, in turn, has all sorts of adverse domestic economic effects. The major symbol of this process is seen the Eastern Airlines' decision to buy at least 23 European-made A300 passenger planes - the first big foreign penetration of the U.S. commercial aircraft market.
The nub of the decline-and-fall theory of U.S. technological supremacy is, of course, that we have victimized ourselves, and that more money and wiser policies will bring back the gap, with the United States situated on the right side of it once again. Possibly so, but before this devil theory is allowed to spawn any exorcisms, it should be seen that the nations of Western Europe have not been exceptionally wise or effective in wringing profit from science and high-technology industry, nor has the United States been excessively inept at this work.
What has happened, however, is that Europe - slowly and with many missteps along the way - has devised political and administrative techniques for pooling resources for research and advanced industry. And, by joining for activities that might be beyond the means of any one nation, Europe is able to assemble the kind of strength that heretofore existed only in the United States or the U.S.S.R.
In the view of France's secretary of state for research, Pierre Aigrain - an American-trained engineer whose post is similar to that of White House science adviser, "Twenty years ago, the United States was doing 80 percent of the world's good science. Europe has been catching up, and the U.S. share of the total has therefore been going down. If the U.S. wishes to maintain its former lead in the proportion of GNP devoted to research and development, it would have to quadruple current spending, which is out of the question."
Aigrain and many of his European counterparts are amused by the anxiety-ridden looks that Europe's research renaissance and newfound industrial prowess are drawing from American quarters. The reason is that they see themselves as newly arrived in many complex and costly fields where the behemoth United States has a long and well-established presence. A good example is in space-launching ability, for which Europe has all along been dependent upon the United States and the U.S.S.R. Now, after a decade of tortuous politics, false starts and great costs, an 11-nation European consortium is close to completing development of a heavy-duty launch vehicle, Ariane, which is scheduled to orbit a series of commercial and scientific pay-loads. Thus, a successful test launch will signal the arrival of a new political entity in space, one that can invoke autonomy in its space dealings with East and West, whereas previously it was dependent. But what also has to be recognized is that with U.S. civil and military space spending in the neighborhood of $8 billion a year, Europe's $1 billion or so in this area is relatively paltry.
What's there to be seen, however, is that in space, aviation, nuclear-fuel processing and other manifestations of the ability to transform knowledge into wealth, there has been a vast change in Europe. It's not across the board, as is evident in the failure - despite repeated tries - to catch up to the United States in basic computer technology: Not even all of Europe can match IBM, at least so far. But the momentum is there and its origin is in the development of methods for multination collaboration, something that rarely takes the same form twice. Europe's research on fusion power - a very expensive, quarter-century gamble - is to be conducted in England by a consortium of the Common Market nine plus Sweden and Switzerland. Meanwhile, one major nuclear-fuel process is operated by a group that comprises France, Italy, Belgium, Japan and Iran, while another is run by Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.
As Aigrain sums it up: "The U.S. hasn't slipped. It's just that we've gotten better."