David Packard

Offering his visitor the hotel room's only armchair, David Packard takes the straight-backed chair beside the bed - which, at 9 in the morning, is already made. Gracious, unpretentious, he brings an engineer's sense of order and reasonableness to his life - in everything from his personal relationships to his thinking about the next century's agenda. ``I think that we must find some way to get more common sense, more rationality, in our decisions,'' he says, ``and less emotion.''

It is a conviction which, like a musical theme, returns again and again throughout the 90-minute interview.

``We are reaching the point where every country in the world is affected by the global situation,'' he observes. As a result, he adds, ``the major countries are going to have to deal with all of their affairs on a global basis.''

What, to Mr. Packard, are the major global issues? ``The most important question we have to deal with,'' he begins, ``is a combination of population control and the control of our environment - how to utilize the world in as effective a way as we can for the future of mankind.

``Anytime you look at the long-range situation,'' he says, ``you come to the conclusion that, unless we can limit the population, the other problems are eventually going to become unmanageable.''

He sees the population-growth problem as most acute in the developing nations, particularly those in Africa and South America, where ``population just outstrips the resources.''

How can the problem be confronted? The answer, he acknowledges, is complex. But in part, he says, it involves being ``more rational about birth control and abortion,'' which are topics that sometimes ``get very emotional.''

``While [population growth] may not be a short-term danger,'' he says, ``I think in the long term that it's going to make our job of trying to provide leadership toward a better world much more difficult.''

``The United States certainly should be a leader in helping with this problem,'' he concludes, adding that ``it has not been as high on our agenda as I think it should have been.''

Equally high on the agenda, he says, should be the issue of the worldwide degradation of the natural environment. ``The environment is going to determine, in the final analysis, what population can be supported,'' he says.

In this area, he says, ``There's a lot that can be done. It ranges all the way from trying to preserve some attractive examples of ecology - so that you can keep some of the original character of our country and [countries] around the world - on down to [questions of] food production and the preservation of farmland.''

The greatest danger to the environment, he feels, arises from intensive farming: loss of topsoil through erosion, the disappearance of forests through land-clearing and harvesting firewood, and toxic pollution through the use of insecticides and fertilizers. Acting before crises come BUT Packard is concerned, too, about atmospheric pollution and its apparent effect on the ozone layer. ``We're changing the character of the atmosphere,'' he says, ``which might change the average temperature of our [planet].'' The result, he says, could be ``some very drastic changes in the climate.''

Both population growth and environmental degradation, he notes, ``are problems that develop slowly, that are difficult to detect, [and] that are difficult to assess [for] the long-term outcome.''

``I don't think [these problems] will get to a very critical point in the 21st century,'' he adds, noting that it will probably take ``a longer time period for those kinds of things to have any serious impact.''

Then why put these twin problems at the head of the list? Because he sees a need to get at them before they get out of hand. ``This country deals with problems [only] when they begin to approach a crisis stage,'' says Packard, much of whose career has been spent working in and with the public sector. ``When they're not in a crisis stage,'' he adds, ``no one pays any attention to them.''

A third point commanding his attention is the issue of the world's energy supplies. For Packard, the energy question is closely related to his first two agenda items: As growing populations develop greater needs for energy, the search for and consumption of energy supplies puts additional pressure on the environment.

In recent years, he says, ``We've had a recess in the energy crisis.'' He says that phenomenon is short-lived. ``It probably won't last until the beginning of the 21st century.'' After that, he continues, ``I think we'll face a serious crisis in oil and natural gas.''

Coal is not the answer, he says - since it pollutes the atmosphere, produces ash that must be dumped, and causes a ``horrendous'' transportation problem.

Where, then, will the 21st century's energy come from?

``Unfortunately,'' he says, ``the best option we have right now is nuclear energy'' - which, particularly in the United States, ``has been affected so much by the emotional reactions that it has not been acceptable.''

``I don't think the people who were involved [in nuclear power generation] in the early days recognized how serious the safety and reliability problems were,'' he adds. ``But in my opinion, those can be dealt with in a perfectly satisfactory manner.''

He says that in the very long run, nuclear fusion may be promising - although researchers are now ``just barely to the point of being able to make it work'' and have yet to find ``a very practical way of using the energy'' released by fusion.

But whether by fusion or fission, he says, ``in my view, we're going to have to come to some form of nuclear power sooner or later - and I would think that we'll have to do that during the 21st century.''

And that leads Packard directly into a fourth item he is eager to put on the agenda: the faltering support of scientific education and research, not only in America but worldwide.

``The universities have been the prime source of new science from their work in basic research, and at the same time they are also the producers of scientific talent for the future,'' says Packard, who for the last four years has chaired the Panel on the Health of US Colleges and Universities convened by the White House Science Council.

When the panel published its final report last winter, he says, it concluded that ``the federal support that has been provided during the last decade or so has not been adequate to keep the resources of the universities up to the responsibility we expect of them.'' One reason: the increasing expense of equipment as the frontiers of science move ahead.

``When I first started in the [electronics] field 40 years ago,'' he says, ``a few hundred dollars' worth of instrumentation was all you needed to do some research or development. Today, you can't work at the frontiers of technology and electronics without equipment costing millions of dollars.''

Part of the problem, says Packard, has been that funds that might have gone to university research have been put elsewhere.

``Despite the fact that the federal government has provided a very large level of support for [science],'' he says, ``we do not have a rational national policy on research and development.'' Lacking such a policy, ``our government tends to support things that are glamorous but [that] don't contribute very much to the solution of basic problems.''

One example is the expensive space-shuttle program. ``A comparable amount of research on materials might [have been] much more important to the economy and maybe to the welfare of the society.'' Going global `IT'S time that we developed some means of utilizing our best scientific talent in the country [for] planning rational programs,'' he asserts.

As scientific research becomes increasingly global in scope, however, the need for multinational support becomes apparent. And that leads Packard to the next item on his agenda: the economic relations among nations.

``Without any question,'' he says, ``there's going to be a basic change in the balance of the [global] economies. It's very hard to predict how that's going to come out.'' As Japan and other Asian nations rise, Europe may well continue ``slipping still further.'' But ``the more serious problem'' is ``whether the United States is going to be able to maintain its leadership in technology and in other areas.''

As the US economy shifts from heavy industry to high-technology and service-sector businesses, the country will continue to move out of ``a period when natural resources were the key to a strong economy'' and into a period in which ``you don't need any particular resources except the education of your people.''

As that shift occurs, ``a wave of protectionism'' could sweep across the world as nations strive to retain traditional markets. That, he says, could be ``disastrous,'' noting that ``the only option we have is to work toward developing the United States to deal in a world economy rather than a domestic economy.''

And that, for Packard, means dealing with the Soviets as well. ``One of the very important challenges for the 21st century is for the United States and the Soviet Union to develop a better accommodation, a better working relationship,'' he says. ``I don't see how the world can continue unless we can somehow find ways of working together.''

He does not mean ``anything like unilateral disarmament.'' His point is simply that the current pitch of defense spending in both countries has produced what he calls ``a completely unnatural situation,'' draining resources needed elsewhere. US-USSR `accommodation' `Ithink we've got to recognize,'' he says, ``that these problems should be solved on the basis of the self-interests of the countries involved.'' The Soviet Union, he says, needs a closer relationship with the United States because the Soviet Union lags in science, technology, agriculture, and other areas. Likewise, he notes, the Soviet Union and the East-bloc nations could ``provide a very large market'' for US products.

Such ``accommodation,'' he says, is ``an area of great opportunity that is likely to develop in the 21st century. And if that could develop, that could assure a century of peace.''

What about the danger of nuclear war? Unlike many future-minded thinkers, Packard thinks that this threat is ``very low at this time.'' He notes that both superpowers ``understand the potential dangers of an all-out nuclear war,'' and that communications between the two are good enough to prevent an ``accidental occurrence'' that could lead to war.

On the subject of international debt - another issue appearing on a number of 21st-century agendas - Packard is not unduly concerned. ``I see that more as a transient problem rather than a permanent [one].''

Far more pressing, especially in the United States, are what he calls ``the pressures of the stock market that encourage management to focus on short-term gains rather than the long-term [prosperity] of a company.''

``I don't see any signs that this is clearing up,'' he says, noting that ``it will get worse before it gets better.''

Finally, in Packard's own field of communications technology, he foresees no new developments that will ``revolutionize'' communications the way solid-state, digital, and satellite technology has already done.

``I think we now have a gap in what we're communicating about rather than what we're communicating with,'' he says. Current television programming, he notes, has ``certainly not been very rational as far as young people are concerned.''

``I hope that [the next century] may provide a revolution in how we communicate,'' he says, ``using the technology that we already have.''

Next: Hanna Gray, university president, Nov. 25.

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