Creating a better environment for growing new technology

Even though the US economy has slipped out of its full nelson, the debate over how to improve the nation's long-term technological strength goes on. In the past year a stack of reports have been issued suggesting ways America's high-tech sector can fend off the rising threat from foreign competitors. On the campaign stump and behind the walls of academia, politicians and professors alike are arguing over the need for an ''industrial policy'' that would aid not only ''smoke-stack'' industries but also those on the front edge of technology, such as microelectronics and biotechnology.

Underlying the debate is the increasing importance technology plays in the global economy. ''The race for technological superiority is as ferocious as is to be found on any cold war battlefront,'' Dr. Simon Ramo, co-founder and now director of TRW Inc., the Cleveland-based electronics conglomerate, said recently.

The forum was a technology policy meeting here. In it leaders from government , industry, and academia focused on how to foster innovation. Sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, it produced few new ideas, but it did reflect the thinking of a slice of high-tech America. Among themes stressed:

* Government planning. The US should not adopt a centrally planned, Japanese-style approach. Corporate leaders argue that business people are the ones on the front lines of innovation and should be the ones making the hard decisions. Many argue that the role of government should be to create a climate for innovation through tax incentives and other policies. ''A US industrial policy would inevitably tend to select and subsidize government-chosen winners, '' says E. Grant Saviers of Digital Equipment Corporation.

But there isn't unanimity on this point. Some leaders would rather target specific programs, like the Department of Defense work in advanced computer chips, instead of entire industries.

* Joint R&D. There's a need to pool research and development resources so companies can compete with efforts backed by foreign governments. This, however, would require a change in US antitrust law, which, companies contend, discourages joint research. Some half dozen proposals now before Congress would lessen the impact of antitrust legislation on R&D partnerships. But there is no certainty that any of the measures will pass.

* Taxes. More incentives are needed to spur research and development. Many officials want to make the 1981 R&D tax credit law permanent, for instance. Scheduled to expire in 1985, it gives companies a 25 percent credit for increased R&D activities. Various congressional bills, if passed, would extend that law and allow tax credits for corporate donations to basic research at colleges.

As it is, the level of corporate spending on laboratory activities is rising. Battelle Labs forecasts that industrial R&D funding should hit $48.8 billion in 1984, a 5 percent real increase over the year before. Federal R&D outlays are also slated to climb. The administration's proposed budget calls for a 14 percent increase, to $53 billion. ''During the past four years we've seen the strongest support for basic research in 20 years,'' said presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II.

* Engineering education. TRW's Dr. Ramo notes that the USSR graduates five times as many engineers a year as the US. Further, American colleges turn out 70 engineers for every 10,000 graduates, while Japan produces 400. If one judges by numbers of engineers, he says, then 3 out of 4 future important technological breakthroughs are likely to occur elsewhere. Ramo calls for a ''permanent national program'' to improve engineering training.

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