Research Priorities Made in Wonderland

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

February 04, 1992|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- For a quick course in wacky policy-making, look at George Bush's latest plan for divvying up the U.S. government's bountiful funds for research and development.

With the Cold War ended, the threats now facing this country are economic rather than military. But the president proposes to give the Pentagon 60 percent of the $76 billion budgeted for R&D next year. That's the same share that defense received last year, before the ex-Soviet military establishment went into a catatonic state.

The only rationale offered is that military research must thrive to prevent ''technological surprise.'' Where this might come from is not stated, nor is there an explanation for raising military R&D even above the levels of the worst in Soviet-American animosities.

Star Wars is budgeted for $5.4 billion for next year. After several years of malign neglect by the White House, a mere $68 million is now proposed for the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program, designed to promote R&D collaboration among small firms. When applications were invited for this program last year, industry responded with 249 proposals, scores of them highly rated.

But funds were so scarce that only 11 were accepted. Even with the proposed budget boost -- $17 million above last year's figure -- the outcome for many promising research proposals will be rejection for lack of money.

From South Korea to France, the governments of our industrial competitors are pumping money into industrial research and encouraging private firms to do the same. But the Bush administration remains ideologically adrift on the government's proper role in the marketplace.

Pressed by the recession and demands for profits, American industrial management is increasingly timid about taking on long-term research projects, which by definition are gambles. Aerospace, rapidly sinking into a depression as military business declines, shows little confidence about converting from rockets and military aircraft to civilian products.

In a candid acknowledgment of the industry's plight, Don Fuqua, the president of the Aerospace Industries Association, recently warned that ''the industry has learned the hard way the lesson that high-tech labor and facilities are not readily adaptable to low-tech consumer products. The history of our industry is replete with examples of failed attempts to do so,'' he said.

He might have added that the federal budget offers no help for aerospace dinosaurs to make the transition to civilian competition.

America's technological prowess remains formidable, but relative to other nations it is slipping, because they're focused on getting ahead while the White House remains uncertain about what to do.

Last year, Congress provided money to establish a Critical Technologies Institute -- a small office to monitor scientific developments of industrial importance and suggest strategies for research and commercialization. The original plan, by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., called for closely linking the institute to the White House Office of Scientific and Technology Policy.

Suspicious of an industrial Trojan horse, the White House sent back the money, saying the U.S. could get along nicely without the institute.

Congress, however, persisted, and now the institute is scheduled to come into existence this spring -- though as a free-standing organization operated by a non-government contractor. The connection to government will be through a board mainly appointed by major Cabinet officers.

Notably absent is evidence of White House enthusiasm for this congressional creation.

The research managers of the Bush administration loyally point out that while the Pentagon's share of federal R&D money may seem high at 60 percent, it hit over 70 percent during the Reagan arms buildup. The civilian share has indeed increased in recent years. But the pace of change is absurdly slow.

Look at the world and then compare the government's allocations: $46 billion for military research, $30 billion for civilian research. The White House yields to none in cheerleading for industrial competitiveness, but when it comes to dividing the money, antique policies prevail.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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