A more global tech view

By , Eugene B. Skolnikoff is director of the Center for International Studies and a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.

It is time we shed our parochial attitudes toward science and technology if we expect to remain the world's foremost technological nation. That seems paradoxical, but in fact, the spread of competence in science and technology now requires different attitudes toward international cooperation and interaction with others than are reflected in our current policies.

We have come to assume that the long postwar dominance of the United States in science and technology is a natural consequence of our basic intelligence, or ingenuity, or unique economic system, or other flattering characteristic. Ironically, we continue to hold that view even while in some arenas we wonder how to confront the technological competition from abroad, and particularly from Japan. Policies and programs of the government, notably those involving control of export of technology, are debated as though other nations can do little in science and technology unless they learn it from us.

In fact, the situation is different. Although the US still has the broadest and deepest capability in science and technology we now face at least equal competition in most fields, and are in danger of falling behind in many. Nor is this new. The rise in competence in Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union has been evident for years.

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The US is poorly placed to do what other countries have long since learned is necessary: tapping the knowledge and experience of other countries through cooperative projects, student exchanges, science attaches, and similar measures, as a complement to domestic research and development (R&D). Many countries have large cadres deployed in the US and elsewhere, primarily to stay abreast of rapidly moving technical fields. Funds for travel and study abroad for scientists and engineers are assumed by other countries to be natural components of R&D policy. International industrial cooperation and interaction are actively stimulated and supported.

In the US, policies are almost reversed. Many programs for international cooperation in science and technology with industrialized nations that did exist before 1981 were canceled by this administration (in some cases raising questions of bad faith). International travel for scientists and engineers has been cut out or placed under even more scrutiny than normal in a government that tends to be prudishly skeptical of foreign travel by those not associated with a foreign-affairs agency.

In broader, but related, areas the administration has advocated cuts in the Fulbright exchange program, while concern in the government for the serious deficiencies in education and research in foreign languages and international affairs continues to be negligible.

This is not only a result of Reagan administration policies, although it has made the situation measurably worse. The previous administration attempted to build more international programs in science and technology, but with only limited success, and with no lasting effect on the deeper problem of attitudes in the government or the Congress.

Moreover, it is not only a problem for the government. Previous assumptions of the value of serious study and residence abroad as preparation for professional careers in science and engineering have given way to concern over early advancement, immediate economic return, and job security. Apparently there is also reduced interest in the cultural or intellectual rewards of foreign study.

Industry is often better attuned to the importance of foreign developments, but it is only the larger, experienced companies that are normally in a position to monitor and interact with foreign laboratories and industry, and to realize that effective competition with equals requires more rather than less interaction. Medium-size and small companies in most fields - those that are so critical to innovation in high technology - can rarely do that on their own. Even large companies are too often naive and ill-informed about the structure and operation of the scientific and technological enterprise in other countries. The much-vaunted American business school gives surprisingly little attention to preparing business leaders for participation in an international environment.

For all the rhetoric about America's role in the world, the country is narrow in its policy for support of science and technology.

International interactions of all kinds should be a necessary part of a strong policy for science and technology, not seen either as irrelevant or as a threat. The costs of the current attitudes may not have been of great importance in the past. In the new environment of high-quality and aggressive technological competence in other nations, the costs are likely to be very high indeed.

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