Linking research funding to national industrial competitiveness is proving a mixed blessing for some United States universities.

Former Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Paul Gray was grilled by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations in 1989 about why MIT had defended funding on the ground of industrial competitiveness but then sold technology to the Japanese via its industrial liaison program.

The committee report, released last month, revived these criticisms. A former MIT professor, David Noble, who advised the committee in its investigations, says the report challenges the integrity of MIT's industrial liaison program. It "called for federal funds on the basis of aid to competitiveness, but is using funds to work with Japanese firms," he says.

Charges that universities are "selling science" put many industrial liaison programs on the defensive.

"Lehigh University's ATLAS Center has no Japanese partners," says Bill Michalerya, manager of industry liaison and technology transfer for the Center for Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLAS). "We are exploring ways to work with Japanese and other overseas affiliates that would ensure a two-way exchange of information and a preferential position for American copartners in any venture with the Japanese."

"We don't sell technology," says David Lampe, associate director of MIT's industrial liaison program. "For a fee we help industry assess the potential of emerging technologies.

"Basic knowledge relies on free interaction with the best practice in the world. That used to be always in the US. Now it's not. We owe it to our students to be in touch with the best," he adds. "We learn at least as much from the Japanese as they learn from us."

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