High tech: the government does have a role

All Americans know the nation is struggling to recover from severe recession. What is not understood is that the greater danger to the national interest lies in the steady erosion of American economic superiority. Fortunately, there is a growing view in Congress that the health of the American economy is tied directly to a strong national commitment to science, technology, and education.

In recent years, the United States has shifted rapidly from a manufacturing to an information economy. Today, 7 of every 10 Americans are employed in the information and services sector while only one of five works in manufacturing. One of every two working Americans is employed to collect, organize, or disseminate information.

The US economy can no longer be viewed merely as a system. It is a subsystem of the world market. Today 70 percent of US products compete with foreign products. Our nation's share of world trade in manufactured products shrank from 25 percent in 1960 to 18 percent in 1980. Of even greater concern is the fact that the US share of the world market for high technology products has decreased from 30 percent to 20 percent over the past two decades.

Illustrative of the fundamental shifts taking place:

* Electronics, now the 10th largest industry in the world, is projected to be the fourth largest by 1990, and second only to energy by the year 2000.

* Typical of the electronics industry, Hewlett-Packard reports about three-quarters of its business in 1981 resulted from new products introduced since 1977.

* Within five years, General Motors expects 90 percent of its production machinery to be controlled by computers.

* The US has dropped from second to seventh among the leading industrial nations in the ''skill'' level of its workers.

In reaction to these trends, a rash of bills has been introduced in Congress designed to strengthen the nation's ability to produce the engineers and scientists required for the new information technology economy. These bills seek to address the growing shortage of technically skilled workers trained in mathematics, science, and technology-related subjects. One of the most comprehensive bills is that of Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, to be introduced this month, labeled the ''High Technology Morrill Act.''

The Tsongas bill is the most creative of the legislation introduced, calling for public-private joint funding of technology education proposals initiated by a corporation and university, approved by state government, and granted by federal government. The purpose is to promote economic development in the states emphasizing innovative, productive projects which can serve as models to emulate. Taken together, the pending bills represent a worthy effort to remedy the slackening of interest and deterioration in scientific education in American schools over the last decade.

That the federal government is asked to be an instrument for influencing economic growth should come as no surprise to President Reagan. The nation faced a simlar dilemma in its infant years. How to foster economic development? Alexander Hamilton in his brilliant ''Report on Manufactures'' in 1791 resolved the issue in favor of an industrial state in which the federal government would use its power to promote and improve the efforts of industry by fostering discoveries and inventions and rewarding superiority.

Undergirding today's bills is the fact that US research and development, the source of technological innovation, hit its high in 1964 at 2.97 percent of gross national product, and has been dropping since then. On the other hand, R&D relative to GNP has been rising consistently over the past two decades for two of America's chief competitors, Japan and West Germany. Moreover, while the US still has the highest proportion of scientists and engineers in its labor force, that percentage has been decreasing during the last decade while Japan's has doubled during the same period.

The federal government has used the resource of higher education to shape national policy on three pivotal occasions. In 1862, during the height of the Civil War, congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont authored the bill signed by President Abraham Lincoln that became known simply as the Morrill Act. This act created the state system of public land-grant universities and colleges to provide educational training in the science of agriculture and the industrial arts. In 1944, the GI Bill was passed, subsidizing the college education of returning servicemen to prepare a trained cadre of manpower to meet the requirements of a peacetime society. In 1958, the Sputnik-induced external threat of the Soviet Union provoked national fear of losing US technological superiority in outer space, resulting in the $1 billion emergency National Defense Education Act.

Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige testified before Congress in 1981 that the United States is ''facing competitive challenges of a magnitude that only a few years ago would have been unimaginable.'' To meet the new challenges, the huge resources of higher education can be mobilized once again to generate the technically trained manpower and research required to preserve our technological edge. Higher education has not been a priority on the national legislative agenda since 1965. If the US is to adapt effectively to the new information-based economy and world marketplace, it is essential that legislation be enacted using the higher education resource to support the nation's technological and economic development.

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