Ronald Reagan's top `star wars' salesman departs: `President has made me obsolete'

George A. Keyworth II, science adviser to President Reagan and unflapple salesman for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as ``star wars,'' can't seem to find enough nice things to say about his job. So why is he leaving it next week?

Dr. Keyworth flashes an easy grin at the question, though a momentary expression of fatigue that flickers across his face as he speaks seems to imply something. ``I've been here, I think, longer than anybody,'' he says in his corner office in the Old Executive Office Building overlooking the White House. Here, for the past 41/2 years, he has been the President's man for all things scientific. ``I think that's plenty long enough.''

At the very least, Keyworth has been in office long enough to play midwife to the most sweeping national research initiative since President Kennedy launched the Apollo space program. SDI has become the centerpiece of President Reagan's strategic legacy and a major bone of contention in arms talks with the Soviets. It has divided the American scientific community like no issue, perhaps, since the soul-searching that followed the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II.

And with its billions of dollars in federal research contracts, SDI could leave a heavy imprint on the shape of many types of basic research in the US for years to come.

``It's by far the most important thing I've ever been associated with,'' Keyworth states.

It has also nearly overwhelmed any other considerations that might factor into Keyworth's general reputation as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

When he charged into office in June 1981, after heading the physics program at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the administration's spending freeze had halted a number of research projects in midstream.

Keyworth's stewardship at OSTP has been criticized on the grounds that the administration placed too much emphasis on physics and defense research at the expense of biology, agriculture, and the social sciences. Applied research -- shorter-term projects that hold the promise of commercial payoff -- was considered the province of private industry and often sheared from federal programs. Of the applied programs the administration left in place, two-thirds were somehow related to the military; it had been only one-third before. Many projects in the federal national laboratory system, particularly in energy research and the biomedical sciences, were decimated.

Yet Keyworth is credited by many for ensuring that basic science managed to survive and even flourish during the succeeding fiscal years. And federal funds for basic research, budgeted for $7.6 billion in fiscal 1986, is now at its highest level ever.

``It's been a remarkable performance,'' says William D. Carey, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. ``[Keyworth] can be credited with seeing to the growth of national investment in fundamental science.''

This could be a good time for Keyworth to depart, however. The boom days for growth of the nation's federally supported research sector may be finished as Washington hunts for places to cut the deficit. Two science projects -- the space station and a proposal to build an enormous physics research machine -- are vast enough to require billions of dollars, engulf a sizable portion of the federal research budget, and, under a tight budget, require other projects to be deferred. On top of this, Keyworth tal ks excitedly about plans for the government to invest $3 billion or $4 billion to design a Trans Atmospheric Vehicle (TAV) -- a space plane that could take off from runways, loft itself to the uppermost reaches of the atmosphere, and land at any major airport in the world. ``I haven't seen anything that's received such a high level of support in such a short time,'' says Keyworth of the TAV.

Those projects are likely to compete with the SDI for increasingly scarce federal funding. Many analysts expect such projects will loose the contest unless the Reagan administration ceases to insist that SDI be the nation's No. 1 research priority -- something, Keyworth says, the administration has no intention of doing.

SDI, launched by the President in March 1983 with minimal input from the technical community, has been criticized with growing intensity by many scientists around the country.

A substantial number of physicists and engineers in universities scattered about the country have signed pledges that they will not accept federal money to carry out SDI-related research.

The most vocal critics charge Keyworth with compromising his role as science adviser by not expressing enough skepticism about the plan to the President, or, at least, holding down SDI's price tag. They say that Keyworth has, instead, spent most of his time attempting to sell the idea around the country to a skeptical scientific constituency.

``The entire notion of what a science adviser should be has been lost,'' says Jeremy Stone, executive director of the Federation of American Scientists, and a critic of SDI. ``[Keyworth] is supposed to be the President's science adviser, the title is not `presidential science flak.' ''

Keyworth insists that his role as ``adviser and articulator of the President's programs'' has not been compromised. ``If I felt [SDI] was wrong I'd simply leave, and I would have and could have,'' he states. ``I've said what I believe on SDI.''

Instead, he professes some disappointment in the scientific community on the course the SDI debate has taken, partly attributable, he says, to the ``one-dimensional'' nature of many scientists.

``I have no bitterness here, regardless of the personal confrontations, rotten eggs, and so on,'' Keyworth says. ``But with SDI the frustrating thing has been to see the narrowness and shallowness of the debate in the scientific community.''

Those frustrations will soon be history for Keyworth, who handed his letter of resignation to White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan the day before Thanksgiving. Keyworth says he had contemplated leaving for a year, but stayed in office, at the President's request, to shepherd SDI through its early stages. That task done, Keyworth says he has no disappointments as he leaves office next Tuesday to start a private consulting firm.

``Things couldn't be better than they are now,'' he says. ``The President's performance in Geneva represented a pouring of concrete around the foundation'' of SDI. ``SDI is intended to make ballistic missiles obsolete. The President's performance in Geneva has now made me obsolete.''

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