THE congressional committee hearing room was packed. House members, focused on the development of a startling scientific breakthrough, leaned forward to hear researchers describe their progress. The politicians had two basic questions: How can we support your work? And how do we keep from getting beaten by Japan in bringing this discovery to market?
These questions, raised during 1987 hearings on research into high-temperature superconductors, lie at the root of the Clinton administration's attempt to set technology goals for the United States.
As a special report that begins on Page 9 in today's edition points out, the challenges and the stakes are enormous.
Many of the president's goals are sensible: making permanent the R&D tax credit; expanding funds for basic research; making it easier for companies to form consortia for joint research of generic technologies; develop a telecommunications "superhighway" to speed the dissemination of data to business, industry, and educators.
Of particular need is a focus on manufacturing technologies. This is one of the historically less glamorous fields in engineering. Yet this is one of the fields in which the Japanese have excelled.
Other goals raise questions. The White House would like the Pentagon to spend more of its R&D money on dual-use technologies, with civilian as well as military applications. Depending on the technologies, however, this raises concerns about the export of products that could wind up as components of a potential adversary's arsenal. And targeting R&D toward specific areas of national interest opens the door to pork-barrel spending.
Governments have not established stellar records for picking technological "winners." The administration's program seems designed to provide federal help without undue government interference. Yet government involvement can never replace the ability to see market potential. That rests with the individual entrepreneur. The failure or tardiness of the US companies to capitalize on such home-grown technologies as videocassette recorders and microwave ovens is due at least as much to a lack of vision as to a
lack of federal policy.