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Nonfiction in Brief

June 26, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

THE BUSINESS OF SCIENCE Winning and Losing in the High-Tech Age by Simon Ramo (Hill & Wang; $19.95)

An agreeably unassuming and unpretentious book, given the stature of its author--Simon Ramo is chairman emeritus and the "R" of TRW Inc.--and the importance of its message. Ramo begins with an insider's account of American technological research and development. At General Electric in the late 1930s and early '40s, Ramo helped pioneer the discovery of microwaves and the electron microscope. While at Hughes Aircraft in the late 1940s and '50s, he helped develop electronic weapons systems, coordinating the ICBM program under President Eisenhower. Ramo doesn't spend much time justifying his work developing weapons--the job had to be done, he implies. Several times in these pages, however, he expresses his concern that one day, we might annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons.

"The Business of Science" picks up rhetorical force in Part II, where Ramo finds our nation largely unprepared to plan for technological change: "We have not organized," he writes, "and are not even deliberately engaged in organizing to meet the challenges of the technological society that has so quickly evolved." The problems cited by Ramo range from poor public education (schools that graduate "scientific illiterates," business programs that fail to promote creativity) to a lack of financial support for relatively risky scientific entrepreneurship. Ramo takes the semiconductor industry as a particularly jarring example. "The three strongest electrical companies in the United States in mid-century--General Electric, Westinghouse and RCA--should have been naturals to embrace semiconductors and become leaders in supplying the world market. Not one of them set up appropriate programs."

Ramo's warning compels our attention, for as he writes, high tech is the only sure-fire way for the United States to raise its living standards. And yet Ramo possesses a sense of caution about technological development that is uncommon for someone working in its midst. "Have technological advances been happening because of us?" he asks, "or to us?" As an example, he cites television, "which dominates the selection of the President of the United States. It has usurped much of our children's attention. . . . The public did not debate ahead of time the desirability of this tremendous influence. It simply happened."

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