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Trying to hold tenuous high-tech lead. Special research centers seen as one way to keep US out front

The United States role as the world leader in technology is slipping fast. Scientists and engineers from all over the country met in Washington this week to discuss yet one more possible solution to the nation's declining dominance.

They focused their attention on the development of engineering research centers (ERCs). Experts from industry and academia would join forces in these centers to solve specific competitive hurtles facing US industry.

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Multi-disciplinary research centers are not new. Both industry and government have used the concept with great success. But this is the first time the federal government has initiated a major program to sponsor industry-university collaboration.

``Unless we respond effectively to this challenge, we face certain loss of technological and economic leadership in the world, with consequences which are not measured in dollars alone,'' says former presidential science adviser John P. McTague.

During the last few years, dozens of panels have produced hundreds of pages of recommendations on how to meet the challenges from international competitors. Maintaining technological dominance will not be easy.

``We have to clearly understand that this is an event in history. Nothing like this has ever happened before,'' explains D. Bruce Merrifield, assistant secretary for productivity, technology, and innovation at the Commerce Department. ``The US, with only 5 percent of the world's population, a decade ago was generating something like 75 percent of the world's technology. But our share is down to maybe 55 percent now, in another decade it may only be a third.''

The problem is not that the US is producing less, but that the other 95 percent of the world's population is just beginning to enter the global marketplace. Technology is the ``engine'' of the world economy, and everyone has the accelerator pushed to the floor. The race for technological supremacy will determine future economic dominance.

Analysts who have studied the issue of technological competition agree that different sectors of US society will have to work together to keep the nation ahead of the pack.

To promote the kind of collaborative research considered necessary, the National Science Foundation funded six ERCs last year, followed by another five earlier this year. The meeting this week was sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and brought together scientists and engineers interested in setting up new ERCs.

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The centers are based on a simple concept: The more people concentrating on a problem, the better the chances for potential solutions. If engineers in one field, say computer chip design, work with mathematicians, physicists, biologists, and other scientists, the resulting increase in overall ``intellectual capital'' will promote creativity and improve research results. The first goal of an ERC is to bring many different scientific disciplines together. Spokesmen for the ERCs approved last year pointed out that this multi-disciplinary approach is not easy to establish. The $56 million distributed by the National Science Foundation to the five centers approved in 1986 has been a major catalyst. More than 102 proposals were received this year alone. The second goal is to reduce the time it takes to translate scientific knowledge into commercial products.

The new schools receiving funds this year include: Ohio State University, Lehigh University, University of Illinois-Urbana, Carnegie-Mellon University, and a joint proposal by Brigham Young University and the University of Utah.

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