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 40 JTEC and WTEC studies over a wide range of technical topics. Both programs are now subsumed under the single name, WTEC, although the JTEC name still appears in some reports that cover only Japan.

As U.S. scientific and 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 other countries. The purpose of the 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 who can perform competent, unbiased, technical reviews of research and development activities.

Specific technologies, such as telecommunications, biotechnology, microelectromechanical systems, and advanced materials, 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.

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 an 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. Most recently, studies have begun to focus also on emerging technological powers in Asia.

In the past several years, we also have begun to substantially expand our efforts to disseminate information. Attendance at WTEC workshops (in which panels present preliminary findings) has increased, especially industry participation. Representatives of U.S. industry now routinely number 50% or more of the total attendance, with a broad cross-section of government and academic representatives making up the remainder. 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 WTEC program will continue to evolve in response to changing conditions in the years to come. We are now implementing initiatives aimed at the following objectives:

The latter two objectives are now being served under the recently inaugurated WTEC Community-Initiated State-of-the-Art Reviews (CISAR) initiative. CISAR provides an opportunity for the U.S. R&D community to suggest and carry out studies that might not otherwise be funded solely at the initiative of the government. For example, WTEC has formed partnerships with university/industry teams, with partial funding from industry, to carry out three CISAR studies, covering the Korean semiconductor industry, electronics final assembly technologies in Pacific Rim countries, and civil infrastructure technologies in Pacific Rim countries, respectively. Several other topics are under consideration. Further information on the CISAR initiative is available on the WTEC WWW server ( or by contacting the WTEC office.

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

Not the least important is the educational benefit of the studies. Since 1983 over 200 scientists and engineers have participated as panelists in the studies. As a result of their experiences, many have changed their viewpoints on the significance and originality of foreign research. Some have also developed lasting relationships and ongoing exchanges of information with their foreign hosts as a result of their participation in these studies.

As we seek to refine the 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: May 1997; WTEC Hyper-Librarian