Europeans Still Grapple with Technology Policy Will Government Programs Ever Be Nimble Enough to Keep Pace with Technology Leaps?
Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
AFTER decades of experience with technology policy, Europe should have a firm grasp on it.
But it doesn't. Like the rest of the world, European nations are dissatisfied with their technology programs. They are casting around for something better.
"There's a general feeling that there have to be better ways" to encourage technology, says an official with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The latest defeat: the continent's high-profile high-definition television (HDTV) standard. After years of work and billions of dollars spent on an analog system, the alliance is unravelling. The Europeans appear to be following the American lead and developing digital HDTV.
This dissatisfaction with technology policy is not solely European. For different reasons, the United States and Japan are also unhappy. The US has inventions but too few commercial products. Japan has commercial products but too few inventions. Technology moves so fast and so unpredictably that skeptics doubt governments will ever be nimble enough to keep up.
The skeptics may be wrong. But at the moment there are no yardsticks to judge how well government techno-policies are doing and whether their benefits outweigh their costs.
Europe has made a promising start. Last month a group of independent experts released a report on Eureka - an eight-year-old initiative to boost Europe's technological strength.
The panel investigated 417 completed or relatively advanced Eureka projects, reviewed completed questionnaires from 1,170 industrial and another 487 research-oriented Eureka participants, and took an in-depth look at 70 representative projects. Its overall conclusion: "The great majority of both large and small firms found participation in Eureka a worthwhile experience." But even eight years into the program, the panel warns that its conclusions are partly based on expected results. Only 11 percent of the projects were completed.
Eureka is decidedly different from previous European technology initiatives. Instead of jump-starting whole new industries or mega-projects such as the supersonic Concorde, Eureka tries to help existing industries create new products. The private sector is supposed to initiate the projects, which range from integrated circuits to agricultural robots to low-priced diapers.
Serge Gregory, French National Project Coordinator, does not even consider Eureka pure technology policy. "It's a system that responds well to the challenges of industries," he says. "It brings together companies that probably would not have come together otherwise." It is these kinds of initiatives that the Clinton administration proposes in its technology policy program.
The panel found several Eureka benefits:
* Nearly two-thirds of the firms sampled felt they had improved their worldwide technical standing. …