Post-Cold War base seeks civilian allies

Presentation to open Aberdeen facility to the private sector

June 11, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, a unique idea was born across the ocean at an Army base in Maryland.

With the end of the Cold War, generals and scientists at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County brainstormed: How could the Army forge research and development partnerships with private corporations and universities, and apply cutting-edge technology from the art of war to academia and commerce?

Tomorrow and Wednesday, Aberdeen Proving Ground will present a Technology Showcase for nearly 200 research-oriented companies and universities, whose representatives will consider the base's vast resources, from one of the nation's fastest supercomputers to advanced laboratories and testing facilities.

The event is "our coming-out party," said Brian Simmons, chairman of the Aberdeen Proving Ground Science and Technology Board. "When the wall in Berlin came down, we here on post started looking outside."

Officials hope the private business sector and academia can solve several nagging problems at the base, which has been in operation since 1917. Profits from private sector contracts could offset reduced defense spending while enhancing the facility's national prestige amid rumors of base closings.

Some contracts have been made, including deals with car manufacturer Volvo and Duke University, said C. David Brown, director of Test and Technology for the Developmental Test Command.

"A university research project will find it far less costly to utilize our state-of-the-art laboratories rather than build an entire facility on their campus," said Brown. "Firms like Volvo can make use of facilities like our test tracks."

The initiative is part of a regional push for a technology corridor along U.S. 40.

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins wants to create more high-tech jobs and form a more highly skilled work force that could feed into a new research and development zone within driving distance of Baltimore, Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia and Washington.

"The whole idea of this technology transfer program at APG came from behind the fence to in front of the fence," Harkins said. "The Army has learned to become `business-friendly' and that means good things for this area, including sustaining jobs that pay 50 to 60 percent more than service jobs."

Many observers see Aberdeen Proving Ground as an aging military post that has been losing jobs because of Pentagon cutbacks. People know about the facility for the loud explosions from its artillery tests, the destruction of old stores of mustard gas and a sex scandal on the base in 1997.

Economic impact

But the base also has a tremendous economic impact on the area -- a $438 million civilian payroll, $107 million military payroll and $161 million in contracts awarded to outside vendors who perform work at or for the sprawling base.

The base's budget for research and development -- some of it highly classified -- is about $1.5 billion. Aberdeen Proving Ground employs some of the most advanced minds in chemistry and biotechnology. The McNamara Life Sciences Research Facility in the facility's Edgewood area houses the latest pursuits in the primary sciences as well as in esoteric fields like enzymology, aquatic toxicology and molecular biology.

The base is also home to the International Imaging Center, whose technicians conduct ultrahigh-speed photography using cameras with exposure times of ten-billionths of a second. Such technology is applied in military research, but possible civilian applications might include the improvement of computer printers.

"That could mean an easier-to-read resume or a nicer letter to a grandparent," said Mark A. Stern, team leader for the center.

Surprising sophistication

Such little-known sophistication is Aberdeen Proving Ground's biggest surprise, said a local executive.

"Most people outside Aberdeen Proving Ground would be shocked at the outstanding level of intellectual property and professional skill at that base," said Warren Mullins, vice president of business development at Battelle Memorial Institute in Bel Air. The Battelle group, one of the largest research groups in the world, developed the technology of the copy machine and bar codes.

Mullins, who also heads the Northeastern Maryland Technology Council, said a successful technology trade program could establish Harford County as the next hot territory for research, technology and pharmaceuticals.

"University professors who do important research work could from this marriage of the government and private sector learn all about how to patent a product, market it, create a sales force, and convert their work to where it would be commercially viable," Mullins said.

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