Stuck in the Cold War Rut

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

May 12, 1992|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Several groups of seasoned technocrats with exemplary credentials have recently urged the federal government to get out of the Cold War rut and redeploy its formidable research resources to the commercial wars that threaten the American economy.

The Bush administration has responded with a virtuoso performance in foot-dragging that still gives defense more than 60 percent of Washington's research and development funds. No other government comes near that percentage in allocating R&D money between commercial and military objectives.

Last fall, a committee headed by Adm. Bobby Inman, former deputy director of the CIA, strongly recommended a broadened role for perhaps the most technologically innovative shop in the U.S. government, the Defense Advanced Research Projects *T Agency. With a budget of about $1.5 billion a year, it helped bankroll the birth of the computer industry, and it has played a major part in stimulating a variety of advanced technologies, from artificial materials to artificial intelligence.

Convened by the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government, an offshoot of the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation, the committee included Norman Augustine, CEO of Martin Marietta; Lewis Branscomb, former chief scientist of IBM, and Robert A. Frosch, vice president of General Motors Research Laboratories. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, they suggested, should be recast as the National Advanced Research Projects Agency, with responsibility for developing technologies that can serve both military and civilian needs.

The response from the Pentagon's chief of research, Victor H. Reis, was chilly. The proposal, he told a congressional hearing, ''will have a negative effect on DARPA and its role.'' He was seconded by the president's science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, who expressed concern that the agency's military performance might suffer if it is also required to pay attention to commercial technology. Score another one for fixation on yesterday's problems.

Another proposal for reorienting R&D to commercial competition was made by a blue-ribbon group chaired by Harold Brown, who was secretary of defense in the Carter administration and served also as president of the California Institute of Technology. This proposal confronts the fact that the federal government continues to spend huge sums on military laboratories established long ago to meet menaces of a bygone era. For example, further sophistication of nuclear weaponry is not now a pressing national need. Nonetheless, the bomb labs founded during World War II continue to flourish.

Mr. Brown's committee, meeting under the auspices of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, suggested a reallocation of funds from federal laboratories to create a Civilian Technology Corporation. Commencing with a bankroll of $5 billion, the corporation would focus its resources on a seriously neglected area in American industrial innovation -- the gap between scientific discoveries and the design and engineering of products for the marketplace. The aim is for the corporation to attain financial self-sufficiency through dividends and royalties from successful investments.

The proposal has been greeted by silence from the Bush administration, which continues to tread down the forlorn path of keeping the old federal labs intact, while trying to squeeze commercial benefits out of them as a secondary assignment. Politically, that's far easier than shutting them or trying to bend old military researchers to the requirements of the civilian marketplace.

As the report of the Academy of Sciences notes, ''Strong cultural differences, reflecting attitudes toward scheduling, quality, profits, customers and other factors, differentiate the federal laboratories from external organizations.'' That's the scientific version of the maxim about a silk purse and a sow's ear.

Scientific and industrial circles abound with promising ideas for harnessing America's great technological resources to economic purposes. But the White House shows no interest.

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

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