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Japanese open research labs in U.S., tap American brainpower


BOSTON -- Japan, for all its success, continues to struggl with what American science does best: basic research. Now, Japan is trying to do something about that by reaching into the heart of the American scientific community.

Mitsubishi Electric Corp., the $20 billion Japanese industrial giant, recently announced plans to open a 100-person basic research laboratory just blocks from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The lab will be devoted to studying the fundamentals of computer science.

NEC Corp. has already opened a basic research laboratory in Princeton, N.J., and Matsushita is planning to open a lab this year near San Francisco. Hitachi is looking for a lab site in the New York City area.

Such moves have raised questions about whether the Japanese are using the profits of their huge trade surplus to buy American brainpower to the long-term disadvantage of U.S. industry.

"Mitsubishi's actions should be celebrated -- not condemned," said Robert Reich, a lecturer at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.

He and others believe the Japanese pursuit of fundamental research is long overdue and conducting it in the United States ** greatly benefits U.S. scholars, engineers and graduate students. They argue that unlike applied or product research, fundamental scientific and engineering studies benefit everyone.

Not everyone agrees.

"In the long term, the laboratories are going to make it more difficult for U.S. companies to compete," says former U.S. trade negotiator Clyde Prestowitz Jr., now president of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington.

Japan, critics say, is opening lavish labs staffed with some of the best U.S. minds whose expertise will ultimately lead to Japanese products that could further outdistance those of U.S. competitors.

"Laboratories like the one Mitsubishi is building will enable Japanese companies to tap into new technology at the earliest stages. They also have 'patient' capital compared to our short-term requirements and can put more resources into commercialization," said Mr. Prestowitz. "So the chances are that the new technology that comes out of the lab will benefit the Japanese first."

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