Rich Federal Research Trove Open to the Public

Companies can engage in cooperative projects with government labs

LAST fall, when Vivid Technologies Inc. was trying to develop an X-ray system for detecting bombs in airports, it got an assist from the Federal Aviation Administration Technical Center in Atlantic City, N. J.

The two parties signed a cooperative research agreement in October, giving the start-up company access to materials and human expertise that the FAA lab was "uniquely qualified to provide," says James Aldo, marketing director for the Waltham, Mass., firm. As a result, the company's detection device was significantly improved and is being installed at airports in London and Dallas.

If the Bush administration has its way, many more companies will reap such benefits from the nation's network of more than 700 federal research laboratories.

"I urge you to reach into the federal laboratories ... and pull the good ideas out," James Watkins, the secretary of energy, told an audience of about 500 businesspeople last week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The meeting marked the beginning of a "national technology initiative."

Admiral Watkins likened the initiative to "letting kids into a candy store." Some 160,000 scientists work at 10 of the federal labs alone.

While such efforts at "technology transfer" from federal research labs are not new, this initiative appears designed to stimulate public-private partnership at a time when both the labs and the United States economy are in a difficult transition.

In the midst of a weak economy, a presidential election campaign, and widespread concern that the US is losing its high-tech edge, the administration is touting the research labs as a fount of technology from which new products and companies can flow. The conference here was the first of several such events to be held around the country this year.

The labs themselves are in turmoil. Federal budgets are growing tighter. And the end of the cold war means that many of the biggest facilities that did weapons-related research for the Defense and Energy Departments "have to find a new role," says John Alic of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

'THERE'S very little talk in Washington about the shrinkage of the federal laboratory system, but I think there should be," Mr. Alic says.

The federal government is spending $72 billion on research and development this year, most of it focused on specific government needs. For example, the FAA site that helped Vivid Technologies was already developing performance standards for bomb-detection devices when Vivid Technologies approached it for help.

Increasing the spinoff of government research for commercial use has been a goal for more than a decade. In 1986, the Federal Technology Transfer Act made this effort a responsibility of all scientists and engineers at the labs. The Commerce Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration each have regional offices to help companies navigate the maze of large and small federal labs to find out about research projects ranging from metallurgy to hazardous-waste cleanup.

In addition to licensing technology from research already done, the labs have been developing "collaborative research and development agreements" (CRADAs), in which companies and labs pool their efforts.

Watkins says he hopes his recent initiative will lead to a doubling of CRADAs to 1,000 by next year. "We're going to put a full-court press on this," he says, adding that the laboratories are working to streamline the negotiation process for CRADAs, which can take several months.

Watkins shuns the characterization of this effort as a government "industrial policy." He notes that the Advanced Battery Consortium, through which US carmakers and the Energy Department are developing batteries for electric vehicles, is crucial for the national energy strategy as well as for the carmakers. "I don't see that as setting industrial policy. I see that as facilitating free markets and getting smart about how to compete," he says.

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