U.S. companies are surging ahead of the rest of the world in R&D funding, according to The International R&D Scoreboard, published by Britain's Dept. of Trade and Industry. U.S. outlays rose by 15% last year, following a 19% increase in 1997. European companies lagged with only a 9% improvement on expenditure on R&D while the Japanese posted a 6% increase. Overall, the world's 300 largest companies increased their R&D spending by 11.9% to $254 billion last year, following a rise of 12.8% in 1997. The three biggest spenders are the auto giants General Motors ($7.9 billion), Ford ($6.3 billion), and DaimlerChrysler ($5.8 billion), followed by Siemens -- the German electronics group with $5.5 billion. As an industrial sector, information technology showed the largest increase in R&D spending. But neither IBM ($5.3 billion) nor Microsoft ($2.8 billion) rivaled any of the big automobile groups.