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Will `star wars' research shoot holes in economy?

By Jonathan RoweStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 1987

Cambridge, Mass.

JIM MELCHER seems the sort of man who is as comfortable with a soldering iron as with his personal computer. Taut and wiry, his fringe of hair cropped short, the electrical engineering professor at MIT bikes to work each day, and helps utility companies generate electricity more efficiently. ``The systems that keep the lights lit are rotting,'' he worries. ``Transformers that were supposed to work for 20 years are now supposed to work 40.'' Dr. Melcher considers himself a political conservative. But unlike most conservatives, who see ``the government'' as one thing and the Pentagon as quite another, to Melcher they are one and the same. And he thinks the Pentagon is skewing the American economy in ways that are far from beneficial. While the Japanese are building the next generation of electrical transformers, he says, General Electric has converted its own transformer plant in Pittsfield, Mass. to a torpedo factory.

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``Defense is a much more certain way to make a dollar and a much better rate of return,'' he says.

It is from this standpoint that Melcher views the Strategic Defense Initiative. To be sure, SDI has been the target of campus criticism almost from the beginning. Program officials infuriated MIT and other institutions, for example, by suggesting to Congress that they had endorsed the program. Over 6,800 university scientists and engineers from all over the United States have signed a petition pledging not to accept SDI funds, including 57 percent of the members of the top 20 physics departments.

But this opposition has been based largely on the view that SDI probably wouldn't work and that it would make the world less safe. As it happens, the SDI Office has had little problem finding researchers willing to take its money.

And as these funds begin to seep through university research labs, they are prompting concerns on the economic front. How will this diversion of talent and endeavor affect America's ability to compete economically?

``Everyone is trying to emulate us but us,'' Melcher says, speaking of the way even countries like China are striving to free productive enterprise from the kind of government intervention that he thinks SDI represents.

Not all in the scientific community share these concerns. Air Force Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, who heads the Strategic Defense Initiative Office, has pledged to apply the results of SDI research ``across all facets of our economy and society.'' Doubts persist nevertheless, and not just in the predictable liberal camp. ``At a time when competition in semiconductors, computers, and communications is so intense, it is disconcerting to see billions of research dollars pumped into `star wars' when these funds could be better invested to assure our leadership in these major global markets,'' wrote Ray Stata of the Massachusetts High Tech Council, a politically conservative group that was a major supporter of the state's tax-cutting Prop. 2,

Some think SDI is just another step down an unfortunate path. America devotes as large a share of its national economy to R&D as both West Germany and Japan. But where these countries put almost all their resources into the civilian economy, at least 40 percent of America's research is geared toward the military. ``The situation is so bad, `star wars' can't do much more damage,'' says Arnold Kerr, an engineering professor at the University of Delaware.