The National Science Foundation (NSF) has been involved in funding technology assessments comparing the United States and foreign countries since 1983. A sizable proportion of this activity has been in the Japanese Technology Evaluation Center (JTEC) and World Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC) programs. NSF has supported more than thirty JTEC and WTEC studies over a wide range of technical topics.

As U.S. technological leadership is challenged in areas of previous dominance such as aeronautics, space, and nuclear power, many governmental and private organizations seek to set policies that will help maintain U.S. strengths. To do this effectively requires an understanding of the relative position of the United States and its competitors. The purpose of the JTEC/WTEC program is to assess research and development efforts in other countries in specific areas of technology, to compare these efforts and their results to U.S. research in the same areas, and to identify opportunities for international collaboration in precompetitive research.

Many U.S. organizations support substantial data gathering and analysis efforts directed at nations such as Japan. But often the results of these studies are not widely available. At the same time, government and privately sponsored studies that are in the public domain tend to be "input" studies; that is, they provide enumeration of inputs to the research and development process, such as monetary expenditures, personnel data, and facilities, but do not provide an assessment of the quality or quantity of the outputs obtained.

Studies of the outputs of the research and development process are more difficult to perform because they require a subjective analysis performed by individuals who are experts in the relevant technical fields. The NSF staff includes professionals with expertise in a wide range of disciplines. These individuals provide the technical expertise needed to assemble panels of experts that can perform competent, unbiased, technical reviews of research and development activities.

Specific technologies, such as telecommunications, biotechnology, microelectromechanical systems, and nuclear power, are selected for study by government agencies that have an interest in obtaining the results of an assessment and are able to contribute to its funding. A typical assessment is sponsored by two to four agencies. In the first few years of the program, most of the studies focused on Japan, reflecting concern over Japan's growing economic prowess. Studies were largely defined by a few federal mission agencies that contributed most of the funding, such as the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.

The early JTEC methodology involved assembling a team of U.S. experts (usually six people from universities, industry, and government), reviewing the extant literature, and writing a final report. Within a few years, the program began to evolve. First we added site visits. Panels traveled to Japan for a week and visited twenty to thirty industrial and research sites. Then, as interest in Japan increased, a larger number of agencies became involved as cosponsors of studies. Over the ten-year history of the program, fifteen separate branches in six agencies of the federal government (including NSF) have supported JTEC and WTEC studies.

Beginning in 1990, we began to broaden the geographic focus of the studies. As interest in the European Community (now the European Union) grew, we added Europe as area of study. With the breakup of the former Soviet Union, we began organizing visits to previously restricted research sites opening up there. These most recent WTEC studies have focused on identifying opportunities for cooperation with researchers and institutes in Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, rather than on assessing them from a competitive viewpoint.

In the past four years, we also have begun to substantially expand our efforts to disseminate information. Attendance at JTEC/WTEC workshops (in which panels present preliminary findings) has increased, especially industry participation. Representatives of U.S. industry now routinely number 50 percent or more of the total attendance, with a broad cross section of government and academic representatives making up the remainder. JTEC and WTEC studies have also started to generate increased interest beyond the science and technology community, with more workshop participation by policymakers and better exposure in the general press (e.g., Wall Street Journal, New York Times). Publications by JTEC and WTEC panel members based on our studies have increased, as have the number of presentations by panelists at professional society meetings.

The JTEC/WTEC program will continue to evolve in response to changing conditions in the years to come. NSF is now considering new initiatives aimed at the following objectives:

In the end, all government-funded programs must answer the question, How has the program benefited the nation? A few of the benefits of the JTEC/WTEC program follow:

As we seek to refine the JTEC/WTEC program in the coming years, improving the methodology and enhancing the impact, program organizers and participants will continue to operate from the same basic premise that has been behind the program from its inception: the United States can benefit from a better understanding of cutting-edge research that is being conducted outside its borders. Improved awareness of international developments can significantly enhance the scope and effectiveness of international collaboration and thus benefit all of the United States' international partners in collaborative research and development efforts.

Paul J. Herer
National Science Foundation
Arlington, VA

Published: March 1995; WTEC Hyper-Librarian