Largess for the Labs


November 08, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Can government research money stimulate a renaissance of Yankee ingenuity and assure pre-eminence in high-tech civilian goods?

The evidence is mixed. It includes great achievements in aviation, agriculture, medicine and electronics. But it also includes appalling waste in nuclear pork-barrel projects, synthetic fuels and space technology. Regardless of the record, Bill Clinton shows no doubts on this subject. He's pouring money into civilian research with the same gusto that Cold War presidents financed research on bombs and tanks.

Washington used to confine itself to general research that might benefit whole industries, but the new policies are moving closer to specific technologies of value to small groups of firms. And from the federal Competitiveness Policy Council, there's a new proposal for even bolder moves, including authority for government agencies to buy shares in fledgling high-tech companies that need capital to develop products.

Big money from government is on the way for civilian research. Over the next few years, the White House hopes to shift $8 billion from defense to civilian research. When President Clinton took office, the Pentagon absorbed some 60 percent of government R&D spending. Plans call for rapidly working toward a 50-50 split between military and civilian research. And the balance might eventually shift in favor of civilian research, according to John Gibbons, the president's science and technology adviser.

The Pentagon is putting $470 million this year into what's called the Technology Reinvestment Project, designed to help defense firms research their way into civilian markets. One motive is to keep the companies alive so they'll still be there if defense needs them again. With military spending in decline, companies that serve the Pentagon are eager for help. Announcement of the program brought 2,800 proposals seeking $5.8 billion. The first round of grants, just announced, will provide $140 million for 41 projects. These include a proposal to develop a composite material for fixing aging highway bridges and a proposal for a device to pinpoint radioactive waste at environmental clean-up sites. Next year, the Reinvestment Program plans to spend another $470 million.

While most federal agencies are happy just to elude the budget ax, rapid growth is the good fortune of a little-known branch of the Department of Commerce, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which bankrolls civilian research. The agency has nearly trebled its budget, to $500 million, in a few years. Within that budget, the fastest growing item is a favorite of the Clinton White House, the Advanced Technology Program, which subsidizes and orchestrates research by short-term partnerships of industrial firms, universities and the government's own labs. The program probably set a federal record for growth in hard times when it zoomed this year from $70 million to $200 million.

Experts of various sorts are divided on the effectiveness of federal funds for civilian research, with the conservatives among them contending that Uncle Sam can best assist industry by cutting regulations and otherwise getting out of the way. Washington, they argue, doesn't understand the interplay of competition, cost and customer preferences that can make or break products in civilian markets.

The Clinton camp expresses humility about government's proper role in technological innovation, insisting that industry should set the pace and direction for research, and Washington should join in only when needed. But with the Cold War over, and the U.S. heavily endowed with research talent and facilities threatened by idleness, there's a strong incentive to redeploy to civilian goals. This is especially the case with military labs.

With the threat to national security redefined as economic rather than military, the shift of research resources is sensible. But the great rush of money and aspirations into uncertain territory invites concern. There's certainly a big role in the civilian sector for government research money. But haste could lead to scandals, like the colossally wasteful synfuels debacle of Jimmy Carter's time, and could create a devastating political chill.

Let's see a few economic home runs from government spending civilian research before an all-out effort gets under way.

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

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