Radically New U.S. Approach to High-Tech Research Urged
A presidential commission charged with finding a way for the United States to beat Japan in capturing a large share of the lucrative market for superconductor technology has recommended a radically new approach to promoting and funding high-technology research.
The commission’s key recommendation is the formation of a half-dozen consortiums, each made up of several private companies, a government research laboratory and a university laboratory. The federal government would fund the long-range research that the companies need but are poorly equipped to pursue alone. University facilities, by contrast, are adept at such efforts.
Researchers from each member of a consortium would work together toward making marketable products from the new technology.
Without the adoption of such an approach, the commission said in a report to President Reagan, U.S. industry “is unlikely to survive in what we believe will be a long-distance race” for prominence in the superconductor field.
The new superconductors are ceramic materials that, when cooled to about minus 238 degrees Fahrenheit, suddenly lose their resistance to carrying electricity. This resistance, which creates waste heat, makes electricity more expensive to generate, to transmit over wires and to store.
But the cooling process itself requires costly energy. The United States currently leads in the search for materials that become superconductors at warmer temperatures, making them cheaper to exploit.
Among the new products envisioned with superconductors are super-efficient power transmission cables and faster computers. However, the report said some of the hopes for superconductivity are overblown. For example, magnetically levitated trains still may not be practical in spite of higher-temperature materials, said Ralph Gomory, the chairman of the panel and the chief scientist of International Business Machines Corp.
The proposed consortiums would close the gap between the short-term profit focus of industry laboratories and the long-term scientific focus of university laboratories, Gomory said.
Americans are probably “neck-and-neck” with the Japanese in basic scientific research on superconductivity, Gomory said.
But the report said that in terms of commercial applications, the Japanese effort is “better structured than the U.S. both for systematically developing new materials and for coupling these developments closely to industry.”
Gomory said important commercial applications are so far off that there is plenty of time for Americans to catch up.
“Everybody’s just out of the gate. Ahead or behind doesn’t matter. What matters is who’s better structured to run,” he said.