OF all the problems bedeviling the US economy, none is more frustrating than the nation's seeming inability to reap economic benefits from its extraordinary research endeavors. While the United States continues to pour billions into research and to garner the lion's share of Nobel prizes, our competition consistently beats us at transforming knowledge into marketable products.
It's not that we're researching the wrong topics. The Japanese and others are only too eager to use the results of our research, and increasingly they are willing to finance US basic research as well. Workshops put on by US national laboratories, for example, are often crowded with foreign businessmen looking for new ideas.
The federal government has made numerous efforts in recent years to forge links between American businesses and universities and national laboratories. These efforts include new laws that encourage joint ventures between industry and national labs and allow universities and federal scientists to collect royalties on the discoveries they patent.
In addition, the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, has established engineering research centers at 14 universities. Each of these centers focuses on a specific research problem of interest to industry and receives funds - and sometimes researchers - from private corporations.
These recent initiatives are geared toward promoting new discoveries and appeal most to larger businesses. Many small businesses, however, lack the resources and know-how to keep abreast of technological developments. They need help to keep pace with the technologies that will drive the marketplace of the 21st century.
There is no shortage of advanced manufacturing technology that smaller companies could apply with the proper advice and encouragement. The federal government, for example, has set up a model ``factory of the future'' at the National Bureau of Standards, but has had difficulty getting smaller firms interested in the project.
There is a proven, time-honored method to overcome this problem: state industrial extension services.
These services, modeled loosely on agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service, bring university and private-sector experts together with small-business executives, helping those businesses apply the latest advances.
About 40 states have some sort of industrial extension service in place, but many are small and experimental. New York, for example, established a $500,000 pilot industrial Innovation Extension Service in 1986 in four regions of the state. The state's universities are solidly behind the project. Cornell University president Frank Rhodes has been a leading advocate for expanding the service, which has already helped businesses ranging from bookbinders to fire truck manufacturers, improving their operations with technology they otherwise might have ignored.
West Virginia, through a combination of state and federal funding, has established several industrial extension programs at West Virginia University and Marshall University. These state programs need to be expanded to reach more businesses and to tap more sources of information. The federal government should help.
The nation as a whole benefits from these programs, which can improve the productivity and profitability of businesses - the goal officials try to capture with the catch phrase ``competitiveness.'' And the federal government itself benefits from state extension, because the programs ensure that the results of federally funded research reach the people that can best use them.
Federal involvement in industrial extension would not be new. From 1965 to 1969, the federal government helped pay for state technology transfer efforts under the State Technical Services Act.
Evaluations of those programs performed by accounting firms for a skeptical Nixon administration gave the programs high marks. Congress, however, bowed to the views of a few strong opponents of the act and allowed it to expire. Perhaps if the law had continued in effect, our trade deficit today would not be so severe.
Congress has a chance to undo the mistake it made almost two decades ago. We have introduced legislation that would assist state extension programs in two ways. First, our bills would set up an office to ensure that state programs had access to the full range of federal technology information, which is scattered among numerous agencies. Second, it would establish a pilot grant program to help up to 15 states improve, expand, and evaluate their industrial extension services. The program would cost less than its 1967 predecessor.
The federal government would not dictate the organization of the state programs. Decisionmaking would be left to the states; local initiative is the foundation of extension's success. Nor would the federal government replace state money; states would have to increase their own spending on extension to qualify for federal grants.
Federal involvement would guarantee that the federal government, states, universities, and businesses would be working together to ensure that industry took advantage of the preeminence of American research.
The US must strengthen its ability to move its inventions from the research lab to the factory floor. If we fail, we run the risk of falling further behind in the race to compete in the marketplace of the future.