IN a historic shift, the United States is reaching consensus on a national technology policy.
Since World War II, government has encouraged research in basic science and left private industry to find ways to use it. Now that America's technological edge has dulled in key areas, US leaders want to move scientific breakthroughs quickly from the laboratory to the marketplace, and technology policy is an important part of reaching that goal.
President-elect Clinton promises to make it a major effort, guided by Vice President-elect Al Gore. But quietly the Bush administration had begun to move in many of the same directions.
"In most instances - in the basic thrust and direction - there's a consensus" between the two, says Roger Lewis, acting director of the Department of Energy's Office of Technology Utilization.
"I don't see this as a partisan issue," adds John Young, the former chairman of the Hewlett-Packard Company. Mr. Young advised the Clinton team on technology policy but also chaired President Reagan's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness in 1983.
In the final draft of his plan, entitled "Technology: the engine of economic growth," Mr. Clinton laid out six initiatives, four of which build on work done by the Bush administration. They include:
* A 21st-century infrastructure. This would expand the nation's existing high-speed communications network so that it would link businesses with schools, government laboratories, and other entities. Both administrations call it a highway for the future.
* Education and training. Clinton proposes, among other things, a national apprenticeship program for students who don't go to college and programs to encourage companies to upgrade employees' skills continuously. President Bush proposed no such programs.
* Small-business technology programs. Clinton proposes a technology extension service (an expansion of the five Manufacturing Technology Centers established under Republican administrations). Clinton would also double the budget of the already- existing Small Business Innovation Research Program.
* Civilian research and development (R&D). Some 60 percent of federal R&D goes for defense-related projects. The Clinton administration wants to pare it back to 50 percent, freeing up an extra $7 billion. Mr. Bush emphasized civilian R&D but set no specific targets.
* Federal laboratories. Clinton wants many of these labs to devote 10 to 20 percent of their budgets to joint ventures with industry. This builds on the Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) that federal labs have been signing with private companies since 1989. "We're pretty high on CRADAs," says Linda Stuntz, deputy secretary of energy in the Bush administration.
* Business environment. Clinton would make permanent the R&D tax credit (a longtime Bush plan); change a tax regulation that encourages US companies to locate R&D sites offshore; offer investment tax credits and accelerated depreciation for new high-tech equipment; and offer a 50 percent tax exclusion for entrepreneurs and small businesses making long-term investments in new businesses.
Clinton would also reform antitrust laws so that companies could cooperate on joint production ventures (an extension of a process that began under the 1984 National Cooperative Research Act).
Disagreements remain over policy details.
Ms. Stuntz, a Bush appointee, doesn't like Clinton's proposed manufacturing extension offices. She says "that will certainly politicize the process of CRADAs. What you might get is neighborhood job shops."
And Clinton advocates a tougher trade stance than the Bush administration. He wants to strengthen US trade provisions that allow for sanctions against countries that close their markets to US products. Any consensus on technology policy, however, is a dramatic change from what prevailed five years ago.
Many of the Reagan administration's moves to encourage technology were defense-related. Much the same attitude reigned during the first half of the Bush administration.
The Bush administration's direction began to change about the time that hard-line conservatives, such as John Sununu, left the White House. Several high-level administration officials started emphasizing the need for civilian R&D. In February, the president launched his National Technology Initiative. And just days before the election, administration officials from the Energy and Commerce Departments and the Environ-mental Protection Agency signed a flurry of CRADAs with private companies.
President-elect Clinton's plan seems more coordinated than the Bush efforts. Young says of the Bush administration: "We never really had an overarching goal set that said: This is important. This is what we're going to do."
If many high-tech executives like Clinton's technology plan, perhaps it's because they had a big hand in shaping it. Several executives, including Young, gave the Clinton campaign a paper on the subject this summer. To the surprise of at least some executives, the paper apparently became the basis for the Clinton technology proposals.