USA, Japan trade research roles

Published: Monday 15 February 1993

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton wants American research to adopt the Japanese stress on industrial applications. But his call may have come too late as Japanese scientists are switching their thrust to basic research, in which the Americans have hitherto been pre-eminent.

Clinton plans to add at least $7 billion to the government's $33-billion annual investment in industrial technology. His programme calls for more government-industry research groups and a network of extension offices to transfer technological innovations to industry. Japanese officials welcome the move and Michiyuki Uenohara, executive adviser of Nippon Electronic Corp (NEC) says "American manufacturing industries will be revitalised and then they will create more markets. That will definitely bring improvements to Japanese industry as well."
New Projects Japan, meanwhile, is scaling back its industrial-assistance programme and trying to strengthen its comparative weaknesses in basic research. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) recently merged its applied-research programme with basic science and MITI director Takayuki Hirano commented, "Now we are getting far from the market -- everything is more basic." Next year, MITI will launch six, US$ 4.4-million pilot projects in basic research areas.

Japanese companies are also stepping up their investments in basic research facilities and in a companion trend, reports Science (Vol 258 No 5087), increasing their investment in basic research laboratories in USA. The Hitachi Chemical Research Centre Inc, for instance, recently invested US$ 16.5 million in building a new research centre at the University of California at Irvine and Nippon funds a laboratory near Princeton University to research basic questions in physics and computer science. However, such heavy Japanese investment in the US has led to fears about American biotechnology and research being transferred to Japan. "The American taxpayer pays for all that research. To allow a foreign country to cherry pick is not a good thing," comments American biochemist Hubert Schoemaker, who is co-chairperson of a National Research Council group that is studying such information transfers.

Complicating the issue is the difference in American and Japanese understanding of what constitutes "basic research". MITI defines the phrase as "work undertaken primarily for the advancement of scientific knowledge, where a specific practical application is indirectly sought." This has an industry-use flavour for Western scientists, who have been traditionally inspired by scientific curiosity to undertake basic research.

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