Federal Labs Hustling to Find New Roles

FEDERAL laboratories dot the country like so many crown jewels of American science. They gave the United States a leading-edge military and an unprecedented base of technological know-how in everything from nuclear energy to aeronautics. They helped win the cold war.

But now the cold war is over. Federal budgets are tight. And the upkeep of the crown jewels is beginning to weigh heavily.

The debate swirls: What should America do with these 700-plus labs? Turn their focus toward civilian technologies? Dismantle those no longer relevant to defense needs?

Behind this debate lies a broader question. Does America want the federal government to shape the country's civilian technologies as it has shaped military high-tech? Resolving the lab debate will be an acid test of how far the country wants to move in that direction.

Skepticism in the private sector about technology policy is rampant. The labs, run by the Energy and Defense departments, NASA, and other federal agencies, are widely seen as outmoded and bureaucratic. Even high-tech executives think they should be cut back.

``As a starting point, you might adopt that what [we] need today is probably half of what [we] needed during the cold war,'' says Craig Barrett, chief operating officer of Intel Corporation.

``He's probably not far off on the number,'' agrees Larry Sumney, president of the Semiconductor Research Corporation, a consortium of 60 organizations involved in semiconductor research. ``There's a consensus in the industry that they should be reduced.''

Cuts not in near future

To defenders of the labs, such deep cuts seem outrageous. For one thing, about 30 to 40 percent of the labs' efforts are spent on defense-related efforts that can't suddenly be abandoned, such as finding new ways to clean up weapons plants, says Robert Galvin, head of the Energy Department's task force on federal labs and former chairman of Motorola Inc. ``It's going to take decades to get all the bombs ... and all the materials put away.''

Even if technologists could agree on what to prune, politics is likely to get in the way. In some areas of the country, national labs are major employers.

``This is going to be a difficult and long debate,'' says Lee Rivers, executive director of National Technology Transfer Center in Wheeling, W.V. ``It's not going to be very easy to tell Senators [Pete] Domenici and [Jeff] Bingaman that we are going to shut down Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico.''

Nevertheless, something is going to have to give. The labs account for roughly a third of the $70 billion the federal government spends each year on research and development. The labs employ a sixth of the nation's active engineers and scientists.

The Clinton administration seems intent on preserving as much of the laboratory infrastructure as it can. It wants to shift the labs' priorities from defense to give equal weight to the issue of economic competitiveness.

But politically, the move is risky, according to University of California professors Linda Cohen and Roger Noll. ``Competitiveness is not a politically powerful substitute for the cold war in forging a durable, bipartisan coalition for supporting R&D at the generous levels typical of past decades,'' they write in this month's edition of Scientific American magazine.

Privatize labs?

And the Clinton plan - 50 percent defense, 50 percent competitiveness - may not be very efficient either. ``It's a marginal way of achieving the objectives,'' says Robert White, president of the National Academy of Engineering, located in Washington. Instead, he says, the labs should be incrementally privatized over six years.

``Some of them would not survive and some of them would prosper,'' Mr. White says. If the private sector values their research, labs are sure to get industrial support.

Mr. Barrett of Intel would also like to see federal scientists moved to corporate research departments. ``There's a ton of very, very smart people in the national labs. I'd rather see those people in the private sector.''

Instruments key

Such a move might hurt more than help US competitiveness, counters Mr. Galvin, at least at the large, multidisciplinary labs such as Lawrence Livermore.

``You've got these brilliant people with outstanding instruments all in one common place. So they can go after the really big issues and solve them very well,'' he says. ``You can't decommission these people into private enterprise and have them carry on the same work because they are dependent on these incredible scientific instruments.''

With their existence in jeopardy, the labs are eagerly trying to find new ways to justify their existence. One is to link up with industry. Many labs are aggressively signing CRADAs (Cooperative Research and Development Agreements) with companies. Livermore, for example, has gone from having no commercial partnerships to more than 100.

But this strategy has tradeoffs, professors Cohen and Noll argue. While it may draw more corporate money into research, which is good, it can also create domestic cartels.

A group of companies that pay for technology research will also be able to use patent rights to keep that research out of competitors' hands, they say. Such maneuvers are a far cry from basic research, traditionally done by universities, which made fundamental advances in science and openly shared the new knowledge with the world.

At least some corporate chieftains believe the emphasis should remain on university research.

``The research university complex is the best basic research establishment in the world and we ought to preserve that thing at all costs,'' Barrett says. ``If we hurt it by draining funds away from it to support the national labs, I think that that would be a national strategic error.''

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.