National labs are national treasures

Robert Kuttner

April 10, 1992|By Robert Kuttner

Los Alamos, N.M. -- NEARLY 50 years ago, J. Robert Oppenheimer led a band of scientists to these mesas and canyons northwest of Santa Fe to develop the world's first atomic bomb. Today, Los Alamos National Laboratory is a crown jewel in a national industrial policy whose very existence is denied by the Bush administration, and whose future mission is in flux.

The National Laboratory at Los Alamos, one of nine such labs, spends a billion dollars a year and employs some 3,000 scientists, engineers and technicians. In the first years of the Cold War, scientists at Los Alamos did nothing but design weapons. In the '50s, under Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program, they also began researching nuclear energy. In the Carter years, when the old Atomic Energy Commission became the Department of Energy, scientists at Los Alamos began work aimed at energy self-sufficiency. Under Reagan, energy funding was cut, and Los Alamos turned its attention to Star Wars.

Today, as the Cold War winds down and funding for nuclear weaponry declines, this lab and others like it operated by the Department of Energy are the closest thing America has to a national technology or industrial policy. Legislation passed by Congress in 1986 and 1989, over the resistance of the two administrations, encourages the national labs to work closely with private business to develop and refine commercial technology.

It turns out that a great deal of research and technology sponsored by government in order to produce weapons has commercial applications. At its advanced computing lab, Los Alamos just installed the world's most powerful computer -- the Thinking Machines' CM5, a $35 million massive computing machine whose development was subsidized by another branch of the military, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Los Alamos needs extremely powerful computers to design nuclear weapons and simulate their impact. But the same computer used in the design of weapons can, for example, be used to model and research global climate change, or to design a more efficient internal combustion engine, or to map the human genetic system.

The same laser technology developed for the Strategic Defense Initiative's beam weapons has medical and industrial applications. Research in advanced composite materials developed for weapons can have a variety of industrial uses. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs) now used in hospital diagnostics are based on military technology devised at Los Alamos.

Technology originally developed to drill holes to test nuclear explosions and monitor their impact has been adapted for oil-field mapping and exploration. Even Los Alamos' need to dispose of nuclear wastes has spawned new technologies for recycling them.

At Los Alamos, the presence of a variety of labs specializing in both basic research and in engineering in diverse fields creates an industrial research facility that none but the very biggest private corporations could afford. This year, Los Alamos will still spend about 75 percent of its overall budget on military-related work. But that proportion will gradually drop.

As the need for design and production of nuclear weapons diminishes, the government's aid to commercial technology will no longer be able to hide behind a military mission, or to pretend that a commercial application was purely accidental. We must either acknowledge the value of having national laboratories work with civilian industry -- or gradually lose this unique resource.

For despite America's official disdain of anything smacking of "industrial policy," labs like Los Alamos are about as close as America gets to Japan's famed Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). After some initial skepticism, the Bush administration in its recent National Technology Initiative, has just begun to encourage private industry to view the national labs as the national resource that they are.

Under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), as provided by Congress in the 1989 legislation, a private company or consortium of companies may work with a national laboratory or other government facility to develop a technology for commercial application. The government negotiates an agreement that defines how the fruits of the research are to be shared.

In the past two years, several of America's most prominent companies -- General Motors, Grumman, Conoco, Boeing, as well as many smaller ones in such fields as energy extraction, superconductivity, fuel cell technology for electric vehicles, biotechnology, lithography -- have negotiated agreements to work with Los Alamos and other national labs.

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