Before engaging in joint research projects with foreign companies, directors of national labs must find out if the companies have barred U.S. scientists from their facilities. The problem with that bit of congressional xenophobia, buried within the 1986 Technology Transfer Act that encourages commercial spinoffs from federal labs, is that no one has yet discovered any such shut-outs. In an effort to uncover culprits, the executive branch has told the Commerce Department to collect case histories of U.S. firms that have been excluded from foreign labs. Joseph Allen, head of the department’s Office of Federal Technology Management, says the mailing to 700 firms isn’t an open invitation for Japan-bashing; rather, it’s simply an attempt to provide useful information to U.S. trade officials, who must advise firms that are planning joint ventures.

But the exercise, beside lacking any enforcement powers, may be a bit premature: Allen says he knows of no...

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