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The 'most exciting' frontiers in science and technology

Despite our glittering success with the space shuttle, the United States is plunging into the 1980s in very poor shape technologically. With the exception of information processing and chemicals, our technological leadership is beginning to flag.

Japan, for example, a country with very few natural resources, posteda real-term GNP advance of approximately 4.5 percent for 1980 while the US registered a decline of .2 percent. What is not widely known is that in recent years Japan has been educating slightly more engineers than has the United States -- despite the fact that Japan has only one half our population. West Germany and the Soviet Union are also producing much higher percentages of engineers and applied scientists. These facts do not bode well for our future.

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Our half-million engineers and scientists involved in research and development are the thin resource on which we are relying to face the industrial competition not only of Japan, which alone has some 400,000 R & D engineers and scientists, but also that of West GErmany, France, the United Kingdom and the rest of the industrial world. On top of this we must face military competition with the USSR and its more than one million scientists and engineers engaged in research and development.

The US must begin now to regain the kind of technological boldness which was last exhibited in the days of the Sputnik reaction. There are two basic approaches we can take We can educate more engineers and applied scientists -- a valid, but slow process.

Or, we can devise a new research strategy to maximize the creative potential of our applied scientists and engineers. We can achieve the latter by launching a program of aggresive and systematic exploration of the boundaries between the traditional areas of applied science, particularly the boundaries between the leitmotifs of our technology -- materials, energy, information, and systems.

In a true sense, the most exciting and potentially productive frontiers in science and technology are to be found at the junctions of these four areas of research. Einstein demonstrated this by showing the relations between energy and mass. In practical terms, America's future technological leadership is dependent on the extent and quality of its research in such interdisciplinary fields as metal fabrication, software, microprocessors, energy, and genetic engineering.

The point is that in none of these areas is Japan or any other country ahead of us. If we develop a national program that focuses on these research opportunities, we can regain our momentum in technology. If government, industry, and education truly join efforts, inroads can be made in the important areas of energy, materials, information, and systems. From these inroads will come the rebirth of our economy and our technology.

To achieve this we must systematically (1) identify the promising interdisciplinary opportunities through joint efforts of industry, government, and the universities; (2) adequately fund scientists and engineers to research them; and (3) apply the new insights that will be gained directly to the industrial advantage of the country.

If we Americans desire to make the 1980s work for us, we must apply our science and engineering research efforts to the broad, fundamental issues of materials, energy, information, and systems. It is in this no-man'sland between the traditional disciplines that we will find the breakthroughs that will fuel a new era of American technological leadership.