CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — AMERICA will lose its competitive edge in high technology if universities in the United States continue to sell their best ideas to Japan.
That's the message of a recent study on how the Japanese gained dominance in automobiles and electronics in the 1980s. Now, warns the Center for Public Integrity, Japan is taking aim at computer science and biotechnology.
"Buying the American Mind" points out that Japanese companies have benefited by building laboratories on US campuses where they can license, market, and manufacture the fruits of university research; meanwhile, the universities keep the patents.
The center, funded by labor unions and US companies, calls for a national commission to investigate "foreign financial participation in scientific research at US colleges and universities."
Prominent among the universities cited in the report is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which received $24 million in Japanese corporate and government grants, a figure topped only by Harvard University's $93 million total.
Some US companies also sponsor research at the institute, said MIT President Charles Vest in a recent speech, but many are either unwilling or unable to open partnerships with universities. If MIT itself is to remain competitive, it must have money to pursue the cutting edge of research, he added.
Some MIT professors also contend that, if US companies do not have the money for research, the federal government should make money available through low-interest loans.
As the presidential election accelerates, pressure has mounted on the Bush administration to help US high-tech companies compete abroad. President Bush resists intervening in the private sector, and in his trade mission to Japan he focused on exacting trade concessions from Japanese automakers.
Opinion polls show growing concern among Americans about overall US competitiveness, a concern that has increased as the recession continues. Much of the media attention has focused on how US universities allow access to their ideas for a price.
"The Japanese do not get anything that is not available generally to any aggressive company," MIT international affairs professor Eugene Skolnikoff says. Japanese companies pay a higher fee for the research access they receive through MIT's Industrial Liaison Program, he adds.
Dr. Skolnikoff concluded in an internal study that foreign research was acceptable as long as MIT "faculty has autonomy in deciding what research has scientific and technological merit [and] "there are no atypical benefits of the results accruing to the sponsor." Further, MIT researchers should have access to corporate-sponsored research.
Even though the US contributes more to basic scientific research than do Japanese universities, MIT scientists and university officials say science must remain open.
"Openness is a requirement of technological advance," says MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye. "When you create isolated communities, ideas do not diffuse as quickly."
It is difficult to restrict access to technology, Dr. Oye adds, and restrictive trade laws can unwittingly help foreign competitors.
In one instance, Oye says, an East Coast-based company that develops security systems for computer networks was told by National Security Agency officials it would not be able to sell its product overseas because one US-made computer chip in the system was too advanced. The US restricts sale of some high-tech items to keep them from ending up in the hands of competitors.
Unwilling to be locked out of Europe and Japan, the firm decided to replace the US-made chip with a German one. Now the company can sell its product both in the US and abroad.
Not all MIT research goes abroad, says Diane Fulman, an economist at the Bank of Boston. High-tech companies that were founded by MIT alumni, including Lotus Software and Digital Equipment Corporation, contribute much to the local economy.
In a study of MIT's local impact during Massachusetts' economic boom in the 1980s, Ms. Fulman found that MIT "spin-off" companies in Massachusetts generated sales of $40 billion in 1988, one-sixth of the state's economy.
The institute aggressively encourages its partnership with industry. In 1989, MIT's Technology Licensing Office shifted its focus from patent applications to helping researchers market their discoveries.
Much of the recent media attention has given lawmakers the mistaken impression that MIT sells its technology to the highest bidder, says John Preston of the Licensing Office. At least 95 percent of the licenses his office handles go to US-based companies. And according to MIT regulations, "every one of the licensees [of MIT research] must substantially manufacture in the United States," he adds.
But MIT alumni who form companies often do not bother with the institute's patent-licensing process, says Richard De Neufville of MIT's Technology and Policy program. Some professors also take part-time work as high-tech consultants. Such practices are not illegal, he adds.