The truth about high technology

High technology is definitely ''in.'' President Reagan's State of the Union Message and his new budget, together with the Democratic response to both, suggest a consensus on at least one important point: Whatever got the US into its present predicament, high technology is a way out.

Some useful things are likely to happen as a result of this agreement. More money probably will be appropriated for improvements in science and math teaching in the schools, and federal expenditures for at least some kinds of research and development will rise. Both of those investments are overdue and, under any guise, will be welcome. But if hightech policy is to be more than just another half-truth, a politically inspired slogan to be dropped when a more attractive one is coined, then we ought to give some serious thought to what is required in order to achieve the desired results.

Fortunately, we can learn from our own history. At two critical times, the federal government has acted to bring science and technology to the aid of economic and social purposes. The two examples, nearly a century apart, have a striking element in common, an element that is almost certainly a requirement for sustaining a steady flow of research into development and of development into usable technology. That element is a willingness to look beyond immediate results in order to develop the total system that makes those results possible.

The first example of this approach is the contribution the Land-Grant College system has made to the growth and improvement of American agriculture. A more contemporary way of dealing with the need to improve agricultural production would be to appropriate money for research projects bearing on agriculture.

Fortunately, no one thought of that in 1860, for it surely would have failed. The country was totally lacking the institutional structure out of which modern science and technology grow. Only the creation and support of institutions that integrated the education of farmers, the training of agricultural researchers, the conduct of research, and the distribution of research results could have produced the solid and continuous flow of basic science and useful technology that have so enriched American agriculture.

In the middle of the 19th century it was necessary to create new institutions to do what needed to be done. In the middle of the 20th century the institutions already existed, but they were not in a condition to do what was asked of them. America came out of World War II with a keen appreciation of the power of modern science and a growing knowledge of the many, often unexpected, ways in which its fruits could be applied to important problems. Recognizing the importance of universities in this process, the federal government put programs in place that would strengthen the capacity of those institutions to conduct front-line research and training.

The result was an unprecedented growth in the nation's capacity to ''do '' science. We are only now reaping some of the economic benefits of that government-fueled growth. The robust health of the American electronics and computer industries, as well as the prospects for biotechnology, bear witness to its success.

The point to bear in mind - the point that bears directly on our present condition - is that the government's effort from 1950 to the mid-'60s was not limited simply to buying research. That approach would have failed without the accompanying efforts aimed at the training of young scientists, the building of modern research facilities, and the provision of state-of-the-art equipment.

In science and technology we are now living off the products of those generation-old decisions, and the cupboard is growing bare. In the nation's major universities, the source of most basic research, facilities built in the 1960s are now inadequate and much of the instrumentation for research is scandalously out of date. Programs designed to train the next generation of scientists have now dwindled to a mere trickle, and government policy - Republican and Democratic - has rested on the premise that any choice of careers to which the market leads the most able of our young people is as good as any other.

It is against that background that the new popularity of research, development, and high-tech must be viewed. Once again, a strategy that consists simply of raising appropriations in order to ''buy'' more research will fail. Political leaders in the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries somehow discovered that truth. With the benefit of that experience there is no excuse for ours to ignore it.

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