Last fall Congress gave Leo Young a tall order. In four months, Young—a staff specialist at the Department of Defense—was to pick 20 or so technologies deemed crucial for future national security and assess where the United States ranked, compared with other nations, in developing those technologies.

The congressional request re flects the recent national preoccupation with icoking over its shoulder to see which countries are challenging its technological superiority. Ever since President Reagan targeted U.S. preeminence as a national goal in his 1987 State of the Union address, competitiveness has become an intemational battle cry. All over the world, government officials, corporate executives, and academic scientists are polling expert observers, issuing reports, and spending money to size up research and development trends. But are these assessments really useful? Many observers believe that, apart from their ability to generate dramatic headlines, most of these surveys do more to confuse than...

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