Japan Invests in US Research Labs

BORROWING CREATIVITY

NEC Corporation operates a four-story research laboratory in Princeton, N.J., near Princeton University. Matsushita Electrical Industrial Company opened a lab in Princeton earlier this year. Four of the university's computer science professors are currently on leave to help start it.

Canon runs a research center in Palo Alto, Calif., near Stanford University.

Mitsubishi may create a research center in Cambridge, Mass., close to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Fujitsu, Ricoh, and Sony are rumored to be considering similar ventures.

While many United States electronics and computer companies have cut funding to academic institutions for basic research, their Japanese competitors are eagerly filling the void, and have hired leading US scientists and graduate students as staff and outside consultants.

``This is a bargain for them,'' says Michael Harrison, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. ``They're buying talent that they couldn't hire back home.'' Researchers claim Japanese companies offer salaries 20 to 30 percent higher than American labs. A recognized scientist can command $250,000 to $300,000.

Additional money for basic research, which has inspired such everyday products as the transistor and the personal computer, would seem to attract few critics, particularly with US government and corporate financing so scarce. But not where the Japanese are involved.

Industrial security issue

The Japanese presence in US computer science research has revived concerns in US academic, business, and government circles about concerns about the future of American industrial competitiveness and security, and whether innovation and imagination can and should be a protected commodity.

Critics have also questioned whether financially strapped universities, whose brightest faculty must often become skilled fundraisers to complete visionary projects, are giving access to Japanese and other non-US scientists in exchange for relatively little money. It is not above some universities, scientists confide, to provide on-campus offices to Japanese researchers after receiving a small cash contribution.

``The Japanese place a lot of value on information,'' says a consultant who advises Japanese technology firms on US business practices. ``There's some valuable research coming out of these universities, and they want a piece of it.''

Media lab controversy

In a unique and contested move, scientists at MIT's Media Lab, which explores new horizons for computer, video, and film technology, have a $10 million contract to share knowledge with counterparts at Japan's Nihon University and to teach them how to build a duplicate facility in Japan.

The Japanese ``are going to benefit,'' Jeffrey Ullman, chairman of Stanford University's computer science department, predicts of the overall Japanese effort. ``The people who do basic research, in the long run, will be preeminent.''

Japanese companies evidently share this belief, and it is key to their motivation. Cooperation between Japanese academia and industry is rare, though improving; Japanese scientists still fear being forced into product research rather than basic research, which has few commercial applications. In contrast, American science has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with business and government.

Seigi Hinata, an official at the Japanese Consulate in New York, explains that Japan would like to transform its own labs based on the American model. It would promote American-style individualism among its scientists, encouraging them to innovate rather than simply to improve on existing technology.

Critics view such comments as proof that the Japanese are ``targeting'' US research methods in a bid to duplicate American ingenuity. Once that is accomplished, they charge, Japanese companies will be better positioned to conceive, build, and sell products. Such fears have subjected MIT's Media Lab to heavy criticism for agreeing to export its knowledge.

Don't blame the Japanese

MIT professor Michael Dertouzous, co-author of a best-selling book on American competitiveness, dismisses the conspiracy arguments. He does agree that Japanese companies are fostering inventiveness in an attempt to strengthen this most vulnerable link in their manufacturing chain. If that threatens US industrial prowess, he adds bluntly, Americans ought not to blame the Japanese, but themselves.

``This weakening in [US] industrial performance is not because we're losing inventions,'' he says. ``It's because we are not able ... to make products that are simultaneously high-quality, low-cost, and fast to market. It doesn't matter where they're invented, we have trouble making them. That's why we're losing our shirt.''

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