THE DISPARITY is troubling: American science remains immensely productive, but American industry is frequently slow to apply it. Foreign producers move faster and invade American markets with products based on technology developed here.
These transfers of knowledge take a great variety of forms, as Dan Morgan's illuminating articles in this newspaper last week demonstrated. The successful foreign competitors are commonly Japanese. Has something gone wrong here?
The explanations are to be found in American industrial practices, not Japanese. The current anxious attention to foreign competition is the beginning of the remedy. In the quarter-century of great success following World War II, the American mass production industries learned habits that more recently have served them badly. They learned to get very high productivity through long production runs, with minimal model changes. They were working with standard products in which improvements were typically incremental. Development work became increasingly separated from manufacturing. A steady flow of profits ratified all of these practices. As time went on, managers very often began to take the manufacturing process for granted and diverted brains and energy to other parts of the business--usually finance and merchandising. All of that happened in a period when Americans were not under much pressure from foreign competition--but then conditions changed very fast in the 1970s with the sudden expansion of American trade.
Three specialists at the Harvard Business School --William Abernathy, Kim Clark and Alan Kantrow--provide a highly instructive description of this evolution in their recent book, "Industrial Renaissance." They go on to point out that some companies are now responding with vigor and intelligence, and they have been in American automobile plants where they found "a spirit and a level of performance every bit as impressive as that which we found in Japan."
As for high technology, the U.S. Commerce Department recently published an analysis of American competitive performance there. In 1980, the latest year reported, the United States imported $33 billion in high-technology goods--but exported nearly twice as much, $63 billion worth. West Germany at $47 billion was the second-largest high technology exporter. Japan ranked third, with $33 billion in high-technology exports. Japan's sales have been growing faster than its competitors' and have reached into areas where Americans didn't expect them. But the American position remains by any definition very strong.
How are Americans to maintain their technological strength? The first thing is to keep putting money into the sources of it--basic science, engineering and every kind of education. Keep it in mind that this country's basic economic resource is its highly educated labor force. Next, keep American markets open to foreign competition. It is only under that pressure that American producers will do the job of which they are capable. Finally, keep the flow of scientific and technical knowledge free and open. Any attempt to lock it up and hide it, except in the narrow area of military security, will damage Americans more than anyone else because Americans are better equipped to make full use of such knowledge.