WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In a dry period for government expansion, there's a rare creation that warrants attention: the Critical Technologies Institute. The survivor of a perilous political birth, the newcomer symbolizes sharp ideological differences about what ails American industry and whether Washington can do much about it.
Critical technologies are those dynamic amalgams of science, engineering and technology that spell success for high-tech industry and marketplace competitiveness. Examples are man-made materials, biotechnology, optical fibers, high-speed computing and communications, and computer-assisted design and manufacturing.
The Reagan and Bush administrations yielded to none in acknowledging the economic and military importance of these hot technologies. But in their view, Washington could best make them thrive by staying out of the way and letting industry make investment decisions. Direct involvement was deplored as ''industrial policy,'' defined as a misguided reliance on Washington bureaucrats to ''pick winners'' for the marketplace.
However, as diagnoses of America's industrial woes accumulated in the 1980s, a pattern became apparent. Other countries, particularly Japan, were looking over the horizon to identify the technologies that would underpin advanced industry 10 to 20 years ahead, and they were investing for the long haul to dominate those technologies. No counterpart of this centralized effort existed on the American industrial scene. The response in orthodox Republican ranks was that none was needed.
Ironically, the birth of the contrary view is credited to the electrical engineer who served as presidential science adviser to Richard Nixon, Edward E. David Jr. Mr. David, who went on to hold several high industrial posts, long ago began to talk up the need for a new ''think tank'' to alert the White House to important technological developments.
The idea was eventually picked up by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and two years ago, the Critical Technologies Institute was enacted into law, as an appendage to the office of the president's science adviser.
The Bush White House team, then headed by the leading opponent of ''industrial policy,'' John Sununu, would surely have throttled the new creation with a veto, but it survived under cover of a defense bill that was otherwise desired by the president.
Mr. Sununu swiftly struck back, however, by having the White House declare the institute unwanted. The $5 million appropriated for its start-up was returned to the Treasury.
Senator Bingaman persisted, and late last year, with Mr. Sununu on the way out, a reformulated design for the institute was passed by Congress and accepted by the White House.
Under the new plan, the institute will be financed by the federal government but operated by an outside contractor -- an arrangement that's commonly used in federal support of research activities. The institute's operating committee, however, will consist of the secretaries of defense, commerce, energy and other major government departments, with the president's science adviser serving as chairman. The committee held its first meeting in mid-April, and the institute is now getting organized.
Under its congressional charter, the newborn institute is the U.S. government's official watchdog over technologies of the next decade. Its job is to identify them, assess the U.S. standing in world competition, and lay out strategies for keeping this country ahead.
The Bush White House is yet to reveal its sentiments about this initially rejected gift from Congress. The institute could languish for lack of presidential interest, or it could flourish and become a power in government economic strategy.
A favorable sign was recently provided by the White House science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, chairman of the Institute's operating committee.
''The important aspect of the institute,'' he said, ''is that for the first time, it gives us a structure within the Executive Office of the president that allows us to have people do long-term strategic thinking, which is essentially impossible in the brushfire, crisis atmosphere that much of our activity takes place.''
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.