FOR decades, the Japanese have been notorious for looking over American shoulders to monitor scientific and technical developments. Now there is a growing feeling in the US research community that Japanese labs should be put under the microscope.
The argument: If the United States is to remain competitive in a high-tech-oriented world, it must take advantage of the growing volume - and quality - of Japanese research-and-development work.
The call, to be sure, is not for a stepped-up espionage effort by the US. Instead, it is a push for more routine monitoring of scientific and technical journals and general information gathering.
Mundane though it may be, the practice is important. Innovation does not stem from inventive genius alone: It also requires the ability to learn from others and improve on what they have done. This is not to mention what such monitoring can save on R&D spending by eliminating duplication of effort.
The debate over the level of US scientific surveillance is a recurring one. After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, there was a general clamor to scrutinize Russian technical literature. But by the late '70s that effort had waned.
This time around the situation is more urgent. For the first time in half a century America's lead in technology is being challenged, by the Japanese. Japan is now the world's third-largest scientific power, and in certain key areas - large-scale integrated circuits and advanced ceramics, for instance - it is becoming the trend-setter.
Its phenomenal rise underscores the importance of effective intelligence gathering. The Japanese have spent decades cultivating the skills needed to learn about Western science and technology. Government agencies help screen and disseminate foreign lab work. Corporations and industry associations, usually through overseas offices, meticulously gather technical data.
Then, too, there is the steady flow of scientists and businessmen, cameras clicking and scratch pads in hand, who show up at US trade shows and research labs. No one thought much about this Asian curiosity - until some of the know-how started coming back in the form of products that dominated US markets.
It won't be easy for the US to fill the ''information gap.'' First, there is the language barrier. Few Americans speak Japanese, and less than 25 percent of Japan's technical literature appears in English. In fact, ''there is growing evidence that the best stuff is published in Japanese,'' says James Bartholomew, a historian on Japan at Ohio State University.
At the same time, information has traditionally not been as accessible in Japan as it is in the US. Dissemination is less systematic, less structured. A larger portion of Japan's research, moreover, is carried out in industrial labs (rather than government and university centers), where information sharing is taboo.
Many observers, though, see a deeper reason for the imbalance in the data flow: scientific myopia. They argue that America's long leadership in science has resulted in an inclination to overlook foreign R&D work. ''It is the not-invented-here syndrome,'' says Justin Bloom, a former science counselor with the US embassy in Tokyo, who now runs his own technology consulting firm.
Buttressing this argument is the fact that, even when technical data are at hand, US researchers often ignore it. At recent congressional hearings on the subject, D. Eleanor Westney, acting director of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Japanese exchange program, pointed out that the program gets far more offers to place American interns in Japanese companies than there are qualified candidates.
The National Technical Information Service, meanwhile, a Commerce Department agency that collects and translates scientific information, finds there is little interest in hard-core Japanese lab reports. And Engineering Information Inc., a New York abstracting service, has been trying to garner corporate support for a Japanese information service; the response has been tepid.
More recently, however, there has been some evidence that the US is ready to go to school on Japan:
* The House Science and Technology Committee has put in a modest request for attached to a National Bureau of Standards authorization bill, is specifically aimed at Japanese scientific literature.
* The American Electronics Association, a trade group, opened an office in Tokyo last month. One reason: to keep an eye on technical developments in the country.
* More US companies are said to be setting up listening posts in Japan. Many large ones - IBM, for instance - have long kept tabs on R&D efforts through foreign sales offices and internal data-gathering units. Now others are creating their own crow's nests and telling technical libraries to focus on Japanese literature. ''In the past year or two many large corporations have opened monitoring operations in Japan,'' says Herbert Landau, president of Engineering Information.
All this will barely begin to enlarge the information pool. But perhaps a more pressing need, observers say, is to import another Japanese asset: the desire to learn from others.