U.S. Absent From Japan's New Center

Japan launched an R&D program in superconductivity this month without the international collaborators that officials there had hoped to attract. Some U.S. researchers said they didn’t know they had been invited, while others are waiting to see how the program develops. The International Superconductivity Technology Center (ISTEC) that opened January 14 is being funded by about 50 Japanese companies, including large electronics firms such as Toshiba and Hitachi, electric utility compani

Jan 25, 1988
Stephen Greene

Japan launched an R&D program in superconductivity this month without the international collaborators that officials there had hoped to attract. Some U.S. researchers said they didn’t know they had been invited, while others are waiting to see how the program develops.

The International Superconductivity Technology Center (ISTEC) that opened January 14 is being funded by about 50 Japanese companies, including large electronics firms such as Toshiba and Hitachi, electric utility companies, major steel and materials corporations, and several banks. The effort is being coordinated by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITT), which will support research at the non-profit foundation’s new laboratory in Tokyo.

To soften a perception that the effort is meant to achieve world dominance in superconductivity applications (see THE SCIENTIST July 13, p. 1), MITT has emphasized that foreign firms are welcome to join. But that message seems not. to have reached many U.S. scientists.

“It’s news to me, and news to a lot of other people working in the field.” noted .John K. HuIm, who directs research at Westinghouse, earlier this month.

“We simply have not been invited,” said Robert C. Dynes, director of chemical physics research at AT&T Bell Labs. Any proposal would have to deal with such proprietary questions as patent rights and licensing agreements, he added. “In any joint venture between corporations, the ground rules have to be laid out pretty ex- plicitly.”

MITI seems to have relied primarily on news accounts to publicize the center overseas. Risabura Nezu, MITI's director for planning of basic technology for future industry, said he spoke informally with U.S. officials last summer about the program, and since then has briefed members of the Japanese and foreign press.

A spokesman at Tokyo Electric Power Co., a leading player in the center’s establishment, said that English-language pamphlets giving details about the center will soon be distributed to potential foreign participants.

The pamphlet expresses the hope that ISTEC “will contribute to the progress of the world economy, through efficient implementation of research and sound and harmonious development of this technology.” It goes on to invite “all companies who share our view to join ISTEC and work together to this end.

Huhn speculated that U.S. companies like Westinghouse that already have research facilities in Japan might be logical candidates to participate in the center’s activities. “I don’t rule out a Westinghouse interest” in joining the MITI-led effort, he said. But Huhn added that “we have plenty of opportunities of this kind in the U.S."

Even foreign companies with R&D labs in Japan might have reservations about joining ISTEC, according to Howell Hammond, research director at Kodak Japan, who chairs the high-technology committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Japan. “In order to participate in the superconductor research center here, [companies believe that they] would have to have technical people doing work in that area. And not even IBM, which is doing a lot of work in superconductivity, is doing any of that work in Japan.

Hammond says ISTEC has sought to overcome that objection by offering two levels of participation. Regular members pay V102 million ($816,000) up front and a $112,000 annual fee to participate in research and share the results; associate members, which pay considerably less, would have access to more general information.

Alex Malozenoff, who coordinates superconductivity research at IBM’s center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., said many researchers in his lab already have close relations with scientists in Japan. Such individual contacts are crucial to collaborative research projects, he noted, which “can’t be legislated out of thin air.” And while IBM is aware of Mm’s efforts, he added, “in this wild environment, we haven’t pursued every lead that comes along . .. . A lot of people are waiting to see how it develops, how it really works.”

Greene is on the staff of THE SCIENTIST. Freelance writer John Boyd contributed to this report from Tokyo.


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.3, January 25, 1988)
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