DESPITE a mighty effort, the Europeans still have not overcome a very basic handicap in their approach to research and development: difficulty getting from the research stage to a marketable product.
This is a key reason, according to European science experts, that Japan and the United States still lead Europe in many technological areas, especially computer-related technology.
"For the United States, research is a business. Here, it's a culture," says Kim Ruberg, communications director for Eureka, a program that fosters research and development cooperation among European companies.
In Europe, "there are barriers to transferring knowledge and research to industry. We are lacking on the application side," he explains.
Last year, the European Commission, the administrative arm of the European Community (EC), recognized this problem and set the course for a new direction in EC-sponsored research.
"While Europe is comparatively strong when it comes to fundamental research, [R&D] directly linked to industrial activities has a much lower profile in the Community than in competing countries," the Commission warned in a strategy report written last April.
The Commission also noted lower R&D spending in Europe than elsewhere in the world. In 1991, Community members spent 2.1 percent of their gross domestic product on R&D, as compared with 2.8 percent in the US and 3.5 percent in Japan.
In its September proposal for the "fourth framework," which outlines EC R&D goals for the years 1994-98, the Commission moved away from its traditional role of supporting basic R&D and toward industry-driven research.
It also advocated more EC involvement in "big science," major international efforts in such areas as global warming, the human genome, and controlled thermonuclear fusion.
To pay for all this, the Commission proposed 14.7 billion ECUs, more than double the budget for the current 1990-94 framework. It is far from certain, however, whether the fourth framework will be adopted in its present form.
Many EC countries are skeptical, an EC source says, and not just because recession-weary Europe finds the price tag too high. Some member countries worry about the implications of the EC funding projects submitted directly from companies. They argue that this, in effect, is a subsidy that will give the companies an unfair advantage.
Somehow, the controversy seems out of proportion to the EC's role in European R&D. EC spending on R&D accounts for less than 4 percent of all financial resources allocated to R&D by the 12 member countries.
This shows that, in essence, there is no "European" science policy. Rather, what has developed over the years is a network of national projects (both government-funded and private), often joined with projects in other countries and combined into large, multinational efforts: the European Space Agency (ESA), Eureka, and CERN (the particle accelerator in Geneva), to name just a few.
MR. RUBERG maintains that Europe has made a lot of progress since the mid-1980s, when it was completely overshadowed by Japanese and US technology. He cites Europe as a credible competitor in space (the Ariane satellite-launching system), in aviation (Airbus), and in autos, medical technology, and the environment.
"We don't have any reason to feel inferior anymore," he says.
This may be true for "today's technologies," a Western science diplomat in Europe says, but not for future technologies. In terms of getting to "where the US and Japan want to be in 20 years, Europe is third out of three."
The diplomat calls the Euro-peans "way behind" in areas such as artificial intelligence, genetic science, biotechnology, and supercomputers.
It is hard to pin down the reasons for this. Part of it can be attributed to restrictive regulations, such as those found in genetic research. Part is due to the very nature of Europe itself: many countries, with different languages, priorities, and budgets.
And then there is the recession. For instance, while ESA will have its own space laboratory by the end of the century, it has put off a decision on a space shuttle for three years to study building it with the Russians - to save money.
"All the European countries are having economic problems. We have to review our programs with this in mind," says Michael Paille, ESA spokesman in Paris.