Only a Partial Reinvention

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

September 13, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington. -- Dear Al,

For reasons of unconcealable ignorance, I'll pass on grading your plans for reinventing the whole U.S. government. But I've spent the past few decades keeping tabs on a slice of the operation -- research and development, which will consume $76 billion this year. Sure, that's peanuts in a trillion-plus federal budget. But still, it's a big chunk of the relatively little loose money among otherwise heavily pre-committed government funds. And as you and Bill Clinton know, every billion counts.

Reading your recommendations in this area, I think either you got snookered by the clever folks who run some of these scientific and technical operations, or the misused money that should be taken from them is just too politically hot to handle.

Nearly $40 billion of that R&D money flows through the Pentagon. Yet there are no recommendations for curbing the military's zest for inventing new weapons. The only military institution specifically fingered for extinction is the Pentagon's own medical school, the gold-plated Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, which we can well do without, given that 125 civilian medical schools continue to glut the doctor market. Congratulations on that recommendation.

But then there's the Department of Energy, the great bomb-building enterprise that was deprived of its principal reason for existence when the Soviet Union fell apart. Until then, the Energy Department operated behind the nation's fiercest security laws. Little was known about its military role, except that it built bombs to order for the Pentagon.

We now know, to our horror, that the Energy Department has long been a bureaucratic catastrophe, producing bombs by rote, while exaggerating the Soviet nuclear menace so that it could build and test even more. All the while, it was recklessly polluting large segments of the American landscape with deadly nuclear waste, creating an environmental nightmare that will cost perhaps as much as $200 billion to clean up.

On the basis of this record, the department's weapons labs should be padlocked. But its failed institutions continue to elude fully deserved termination, mainly because they count for a lot politically in the lightly populated states of New Mexico and Washington. The Gore report essentially grants them a reprieve, saying that ''DOE will review its labs, weapons-production facilities and testing sites in the context of its mission -- and will recommend the phased consolidation or closure of obsolete or redundant facilities.'' Wanna bet?

The Energy Department is now strongly touting itself as a savior of American industry via consulting services and cooperative programs in its big laboratories. But the organization's capacity for civilian duty invites skepticism. Its tendency toward bumbling performance -- long unchecked behind screens of secrecy -- has been demonstrated in its management of the giant Superconducting Super Collider, now under construction in Texas. The costs of the project have swollen so far beyond stated expectations that the House has voted to cancel the collider and survival in the Senate is uncertain.

Among the many other research-related items untouched in the reinvention of government is NASA's Space Station, an orbital albatross whose costs have oscillated between $8 billion and $40 billion. Space scientists have disavowed the project, fearful that its out-of-control financial needs will come out of their skimpy budgets. Industrial firms show little interest in the venture, though it was initially sold to Congress as a boon to low-gravity research of great commercial potential.

Inheriting this mess from the Bush and Reagan era of mega-projects, the Clinton administration has given it yet another face lift and proclaimed it worthy and under control. Some measure of the administration's desperation about this venture may be inferred from the latest ploy -- signing on the decaying ex-Soviet space establishment as part of the Space Station team. The motives for retaining this losing operation are political rather than space-related: with defense procurement in a tailspin, the aerospace industry is on the ropes, and loss of the Space Station would be calamitous.

It was Bill Clinton who said, ''We intend to redesign, to reinvent, to reinvigorate the entire national government.''

Good idea. When is he going to start?

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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