Shifting Gears on Industrial Policy

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

April 27, 1992|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON. — There's nothing like an election campaign to invigorate the spirit of domestic reform in George Bush, now emerging as the champion of high-tech industrial resurrection, not long after his sudden embrace of another long-neglected issue, health-care reform.

In the Bush glossary of governmental horrors, direct federal help for civilian industry is still denounced as ''industrial policy.'' Uttered with abhorrence, it is defined as inevitably doomed attempts by government bureaucrats to ''pick winners'' in the commercial marketplace. Can't be done, according to the president and his helpers, so don't waste the money.

Whether it can be done outside of special economic and technological circumstances, such as aircraft and computers, is debatable. But the president is hurriedly covering his flanks on industrial strategy, just as he did on health care after the 'N underdog Democrat, Harris Wofford, rode that issue to victory in last November's Senate election in Pennsylvania.

Direct federal stimulation of civilian technology, along the lines of what the Pentagon has done for military technology, has long been a favorite cause of congressional Democrats.

All the Democratic primary candidates endorsed that goal, and it continues as a battle cry in the campaign of front-runner Bill Clinton, who said in a recent speech: ''Every dollar we take out of military R&D in the post-Cold War era should go to R&D for commercial technologies, until civilian R&D can match and eventually surpass our Cold War military R&D commitment.''

Though idle on this subject for its first three years, the Bush administration has suddenly become publicly committed to assisting civilian industry.

In March, the president's science adviser called a press conference to announce that he was formulating plans for a Presidential Advanced Manufacturing Initiative, to help industry develop superior manufacturing techniques. Prior to that announcement, the White House had been very cool to congressional efforts to assist manufacturing research outside of military programs.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department has undertaken a ''National Technology Initiative,'' a grandly titled though modest effort to acquaint manufacturers with opportunities for collaboration with government laboratories, including adoption of technologies they've developed.

Mr. Bush, the new evangelist of government assistance for industry, hailed this effort by declaring: ''We need to share the results, get the great ideas generated by public funds out into the private sector, off the drawing board, and onto store shelves.''

Indeed we do, and it is good to find Mr. Bush has enlisted in the cause, after a long stretch of little but rhetorical support on the issue. But the durability of election-battlefield conversions is perhaps open to doubt.

Two years ago, one of the Pentagon's senior chiefs of research, Craig Fields, was abruptly reassigned to make-work duty when he tried to assist a promising electronics firm that was foundering for lack of capital.

The White House insisted that Mr. Fields was the victim of nothing but a well-deserved promotion, but the word around government technology circles was that he had been deemed guilty of ''industrial policy'' -- i.e., helping a firm that couldn't make it in the marketplace.

The Bush administration's distaste for helping industry also led to the elimination of the Pentagon's efforts to monitor scientific and technological developments around the world, under what was known as Project SOCRATES.

Started in 1984, the project was eliminated in 1990, because, according to a recent report of the General Accounting Office, ''high level executive branch officials felt that the project's reports were trying to promote an industrial policy'' that they did not endorse.

The Bush administration is rapidly coming around on the issue of industrial policy, though it still has a long way to go to match the scale and intensity of help that foreign competitors provide for their industries.

But the way the campaign is shaping up, George Bush could take the lead as the champion of American industrial policy.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes Science & Government Report, a Washington-based newsletter.

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