Turn Defense Frogs Into Civilian Princes

THE presidential election campaign brought to the surface a host of suggestions for using the technological capability of the defense sector, such as a high-speed rail network joining cities and commercial hubs and an information network to link every home, business, laboratory, classroom, and library. Although such grandiose schemes may not materialize, there is another, less dramatic, approach to using science and technology in the public sector. It responds to the dissatisfaction of citizens with the performance of government.

It is useful to cite a parallel. Civilian industry is undergoing difficult downsizing and restructuring as it adjusts to a more competitive global economy. In the process, business is becoming more competitive. A once massive trade deficit has been reduced from triple digits to more modest double digits. A key to this dramatic improvement has been the increased utilization of science and technology in civilian companies (we run a trade surplus in high-tech products).

A similar adjustment should take place in the public sector, based on the old adage "if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well." Low-productivity agencies such as the Post Office and the Government Printing Office should improve their performance by applying modern technology. So should many other government agencies, including local school systems.

But we must learn from the past experiences of defense companies attempting to commercialize their technology. Force-feeding high-tech products to an unwilling customer does not work. If a special government agency is set up to subsidize this process, the result most likely will be a political fiasco or an economic boondoggle - or both.

Government agencies must be educated to seek more efficient, and frequently more high-tech, solutions to the shortcomings of their own operations. This process is already occurring in the area of environmental protection. New approaches are being developed, especially in pollution avoidance, involving innovations in both technology and economics. As more and more government decisionmakers take this enlightened attitude, the demand for using science and technology will expand as will the need for scientis ts, engineers, and skilled craftsmen.

There is an important role for government in advancing technology. No individual business has incentive to spend much on basic research, because the benefits are widely distributed. However, because of the large gains to society, government has a major responsibility for adequately financing basic research.

Government should also reduce the statutory and administrative roadblocks that, often unintentionally, reduce technological progress. In the case of some key high-tech civilian-oriented industries, the major constraints on commercializing advances in technology arise from government regulation. Many regulatory agencies exempt existing facilities, product, and processes from their directives or go easier on them. Rapidly expanding social rulings hit harder on new enterprises and new technology. The sensib le answer is not to provide offsetting subsidies but to streamline the government's elaborate regulatory apparatus.

A simpler and more effective patent system would also encourage the creation and diffusion of new product ideas. Such a change would ensure that smaller inventors are not overwhelmed by the cost of obtaining patents. Also, larger firms would be encouraged to seek patents rather than protecting their new products and processes by maintaining secrecy.

Unfortunately, the course of competition is not predictable. There is no assurance that any given company or industry will win a substantial share of public-sector markets. We do know that if government becomes increasingly high-tech, there will be a rising demand for the types of skills possessed by those hit by the current wave of defense cutbacks.

The basic answer is to generate a more rapid rate of growth for the American economy overall. A rising tide may not lift all boats - indeed the leaky ones may sink - but a rising tide will raise a lot of boats that are now stuck in the mud.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.