Published November 1979 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd A U.S. Technological Gap? For years, American industry dominated world markets for everything from passenger jets to oil-drilling equipment, largely because of U.S. preeminence in scientific research and its industrial applications. In the last decade, European and Far Eastern nations have made great gains in technological development, and thus have increased their share of export markets. Japan and Germany, in particular, have recovered from World War II's devastation, and have poured their energies into research and development, and advanced technology. Many European countries have joined forces and finances to complete large, expensive projects. And in countries such as Japan, there is a high degree of cooperation between public and private institutions on research and development. A look at current patent data shows how great is the progress of other nations. Between 1971 and 1976, U.S. patents issued to American corporations dropped by about 20 percent, while patents issued to foreign corporations increased almost 25 percent. The lack of technological innovation is often cited as an important factor in the steady decline in U.S. productivity. Poor productivity, in turn, is acknowledged as a cause of inflation, slow economic growth, and the declining dollar. Some critics charge that obstructive federal regulations, reduced federal spending on research, and development, and tax policies that discourage business risks have contributed to the United States' slowed technological progress. But, other experts are not convinced that the rapid growth in technology in other countries reflects shortcomings in U.S. innovation and policy. They believe that progress in other countries is the inevitable result of an increasingly integrated international economy, in which technological superiority is increasingly difficult to maintain. In other words, it could well be that the U.S. has not slipped, but that other countries have caught up. Under these conditions, more research money and different policies won't restore the United States' number one position. The best course, in the short run, is to target research dollars in the areas that contribute the most to the national interest, such as alternative energy sources and defense. This is the approach that has been taken in Congress and one that is likely to continue.