US-Japan superconductor race is on. Scientists worry emphasis on `national'competition will stymie joint research
Tokyo — More than a year ago, scientists across the globe were flush with the excitement of discovery of new higher temperature superconducting materials. Now scientific excitement is taking a back seat to an increasingly nationalist competition to see who can gain commercial advantage from exploiting this new field first.
The tension is highest between the United States and Japan. For the US, superconductivity has become the symbol of the drive to ``restore competitiveness,'' and less subtly, to beat the Japanese. Both sides are gearing up with ambitious new funding and research efforts. Many people on both sides see the potential for billions of dollars in commercial and trade revenues.
Superconductors are substances which conduct electricity without any loss of energy due to resistance. The development of new so called high-temperature superconductors - ceramic oxides - opened up a vista of possibilities for electric power generation and transmission, superfast computers, magnetically levitated trains, and smaller electric motors.
At a recent closed-door conference of American scientists, engineers, and businessmen, President Reagan issued a rallying cry. ``The laboratory breakthroughs into high temperature superconductivity are an historic achievement,'' he said. ``But for the promise of superconductivity to become real, it must bridge the gap from the laboratory to the marketplace.''
Mr. Reagan announced a program that includes extensive government research funds, changes in laws to encourage cooperative efforts, and encouragement of government-business-university links. The Department of Defense alone will seek $150 million in funds over the next three years.
For Japan, superconductivity also provides a challenge to compete. Japanese industry and government have reacted relatively quickly to fund and organize research efforts. Japan has a long tradition of government-business collaboration in global economic competition. Already Japanese firms are seeking commercial applications that some experts believe could create a $20 billion annual market by the end of the century.
Many Americans see the dreaded ``Japan, Inc.'' at work again. In their view, Japan is again making a concerted national effort to seize a market on the basis of scientific breakthroughs made elsewhere. (The Japanese, in fact, have gone to great lengths to conduct basic research and develop their own technology.)
``There are bad feelings,'' says T. Van Duzer, an electronics research professor at the University of California-Berkeley, ``due to the loss of the semiconductor industry. Getting there first is not the issue - it's who gets there last and cheapest.''
The designation of superconductivity as the rallying point for an American defense against Japan is worrying Japanese officials. Already besieged on a dozen other economic fronts, they want to avoid a new superconductivity war.
The retort of officials like the Ministry of International Trade and Industry's (MITI) Risaburo Nezu is two-fold: that Japan's research effort is not national or even coordinated and that superconductivity is more an opportunity for the two nations to cooperate than to clash.
``I haven't seen any substance to the observations by foreign `Japan experts' that there is always coordination [on goals like superconductivity]. We have a rather competitive environment among Japanese labs. It is useful for each to pursue its own way,'' Mr. Nezu says.
MITI has a healthy rivalry with Japan's Science and Technology Agency, which is also backing superconductivity research. ``There is some historical background which makes it difficult to collaborate between MITI and the Science and Technology Agency,'' says Hiroshi Kagemoto, who directs the agency's superconductivity research.
Researchers are competing - but with visions of a Nobel Prize in their heads. ``Not many researchers have a national goal,'' says Mr. Kagemoto. ``Of course they have some feeling of wanting their country to become No. 1. At least now, that feeling is not so strong - they are only thinking about themselves, not the country.''
Despite these disclaimers, there is ample evidence that Japan's government is gearing up to make superconductivity a national effort. Even if researchers and labs feel they are competing among themselves, it is the bureaucrats who will set the overall structure in which that ``healthy competition'' takes place.
In August, MITI issued a study on superconductivity research policy, recommending increased funding and cooperative research. The effort should focus, the report said, on basic theoretical work, the search for new higher temperature materials, processing technology for producing thin film and wires made of the materials, applications in electronics such as superfast computers, and applications in energy systems such as power generators.
MITI will ask for a ten-fold increase in its funding in the next fiscal year - about 3.5 billion yen ($24.5 million). The Science and Technology Agency will ask for 2.36 billion yen ($16.5 billion) for superconductivity. The Ministry of Education which funds university research will ask for several hundred million yen.
The channeling of US government funding through the Pentagon worries US scientists who see it smothering international research cooperation under a cloak of secrecy.
``Superconductor research has been an international effort from its very inception,'' Prof. Robert Park, director of the Washington office of the American Physical Society wrote in the Washington Post recently. ``It is a modern parable of the progress that can be made in the absence of nationalistic barriers ... Government secrecy could strangle this infant technology in its crib.''
Scientists at a series of international conferences in Japan this summer, including the International Conference on Low-temperature Physics and the International Superconductivity Electronics Conference, almost universally echoed that theme. The idea of national competition is ``among government people, not scientists'' said Mr. Van Duzer.
``I am worried about such a tendency,'' said Tokyo University Professor of Electronics Takuo Sugano. ``We have to have an open forum to present ideas and technological achievements in various countries.''
The recent MITI report stressed the need for international cooperation and exchanges of research personnel, a theme of the Science and Technology Agency as well.
In early September, an American study team visited a range of Japanese government and private sector labs to look at superconductivity research. The team included researchers from Defense Department institutions. The visit, says MITI's Nezu is ``a clear indication that we are prepared to pursue cooperation.''
Yet there is some skepticism about such sentiments. ``The reality is that now we're competing with each other,'' admits Kagemoto of the Science and Technology Agency. ``Many researchers say there should be collaboration and that the current situation is not good. It's kind of like a war. But it's a natural consequence because we are now pursuing the same goal - the commercialization of superconductivity. I think there is little room for collaboration.''
The researchers may still seek to keep the free exchange of information in their pursuit of scientific truth. But given the stakes in the superconductivity race, the more hardbitten view is more likely to prevail among governments.