Some of the most famous names in American engineering have spent the past two days here debating a problem that has bedeviled policy makers for nearly a decade: how to reverse the relative decline of America's high-technology industries.
The occasion was a symposium marking the 25th anniversary of the National Academy of Engineering, a privately funded, federally chartered organization that is struggling to emerge from the shadow of its older sibling, the National Academy of Sciences.
The NAE is currently working on a study of how the engineering community should adapt to the globalization of technology, and this week's meeting at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Conference Center was designed to provide input for that project.
But much of the discussion among the impressive array of industry, government and academic leaders present focused specifically on how the United States can stop the steady erosion of its leadership position in science and technology.
Thomas J. Murrin, deputy secretary of commerce, set the tone in his keynote address, declaring that while international cooperation and free trade were all well and good, "if our country wishes to assure both its economic and military security, we have no choice but to make our own national interests our top priority." While stopping short of specific recommendations, Murrin implied that a more nationalistic approach to high technology should be incorporated into trade and science policies.
Much of the early discussion, indeed, was focused on how to secure the elusive "level playing field" that would allow U.S. industry to compete effectively with the Japanese. The one point on which most participants agreed was that something should be done about the high cost of borrowing money in this country--which would require the type of massive cut in the federal budget deficit that has proved beyond the reach of policy makers.
Lewis M. Branscomb, director of the science, technology and public policy program at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, addressed the tension between national interests and corporate interests in the age of the global economy. For example, a foreign company that manufactures many of its products here may make a greater contribution to the U.S. economy than a U.S.-based firm that builds most of its products overseas. In developing a technology policy, Branscomb noted, government must take that paradox into account.
And with prominent industrialists such as Hewlett-Packard Chairman David Packard, Intel Corp. Chairman Gordon Moore and retired Unocal Chairman Fred Hartley looking on, several speakers from industry then demonstrated just how little consensus there is on what the United States should do about the Japanese challenge.
Mary L. Good of Allied-Signal Inc. called for aggressive government-industry action in countering Japanese competition, while Philip M. Condit of Boeing Corp. emphasized that the United States can't win by "hiding behind trade barriers or by attempting to protect highly perishable technologies."
There was more agreement on the second day of the meeting, when the discussion turned to education and research and what the United States should do to make its schools and universities more effective. National Science Foundation director Erich Bloch pointed out that contrary to popular belief, expenditures for scientific research at American universities continue to rise. Bloch said that the budget squeeze being felt in many areas is due to increased competition for existing resources, and that the complexity of contemporary science demands more money and coordination.
"With the increase in scale of much research, especially inter-disciplinary research and and university-industry research, there is great pressure to share the costs of equipment--and cooperation is cumbersome and time-consuming," Bloch said. He also criticized universities for putting too much emphasis on research and not paying enough attention to undergraduate education.
University of California President David Gardner rejected criticism of the high number of foreign students enrolled in university graduate programs in science and engineering in the United States, and also defended the growing number of university research programs that are sponsored in part by Japanese or other foreign companies. "The focus of our concern," said Gardner, "should not be on creating artificial barriers--they won't work anyway--but on fostering cooperation between universities and their sponsors."
Gardner called for more emphasis on long-term research efforts, and said the criterion for industry participation in university research should be the same for foreign or domestic firms: all research results should be public, and the university should own any research that emerges from joint projects.
And while all the speakers agreed that improving the overall quality of education at all levels was critical to the nation's future, University of Michigan President James J. Duderstadt focused specifically on the challenge posed by the racial and ethnic changes in the makeup of the American population.
He noted that universities were responsible for "reflecting the diversity of the population and building models of pluralistic communities." He cited statistics showing that the overwhelming majority of university graduates in coming years would be minorities and women, and engineering and science education in particular would have to adapt to that.
That observation was rather pointed, made as it was to a roomful of white men representing the nation's science and engineering elite. The audience could only nod in acknowledgement.