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Rand: Research, Development and Informality : Think-Tank Specialists Reverse Q&A Format in Probing Wide-Ranging Issues

March 17, 1985|MARSHALL BERGES | Times Staff Writer

The rise of Mikhail S. Gorbachev to leadership of the Communist Party, following the death last week of Konstantin Chernenko, was an event long expected by foreign observers, including Kremlinologists at Rand Corp. Analyzing and anticipating Soviet moves is only one of many disciplines and functions at the Santa Monica-based think tank. Here is a look inside Rand:

"A large part of our effort," says Donald B. Rice, president of Rand Corp., "is to turn answers into questions. The object is to make sure that we are dealing with the problem that needs to be solved."

Quiet, reflective and inquiring by nature, Rice, 45, is a muscular 6-footer who heads a staff of 1,000, including mathematicians, scientists, criminologists, lawyers, physicians, economists, engineers, educators, architects, sociologists and others.

Wide Range

The questions they deal with range from national security issues to domestic problems: What specific measures can be taken to combat terrorists and protect American citizens around the world? How strong is the Soviet economy? In addition to Mikhail Gorbachev, which members of the Soviet Politburo wield the most influence and how will their attitudes affect the United States? On the United States' domestic front, are the right moves being made to combat career criminals in American cities? How can health-care costs be kept under control without diminishing the quality of health care? How does the medical system deal with older people? Are the best-qualified schoolteachers quitting their jobs? Are juries handing out excessive awards in civil lawsuits?

These questions, and many more, are tackled day after day by Rand professionals. Their global concerns are occasionally lightened by irreverent humor. A treasured "collector's item" out of Rand's past is a series of maxims put together by physicist Amrom H. Katz, a retired specialist on arms control and reconnaissance. He advised his Rand colleagues to keep certain guideposts in mind amid dealings with the Defense Department, which ranks as the think tank's largest client. Among the maxims:

"Where are the calculations that go with the calculated risk?"

"Every organization is self-perpetuating. Don't ever ask an outfit to justify itself, or you'll be covered with fact, figures and fancy. The criterion should rather be, 'What will happen if the outfit stops doing what it's doing?' The value of an organization is easier determined this way."

"Try to find out who's doing the work, not who's writing about it, controlling it or summarizing it."

'Real Tense'

"Try to find out the real tense of the report you are reading. Was it done, is it being done, or is it something to be done? Reports are now written in four tenses: past tense, present tense, future tense and pretense. Watch for novel uses of congram (contractor grammar), defined by the imperfect past, the insufficient present and the absolutely perfect future."

Not much is sacred at Rand, beyond its serious effort to tackle problems. Rand depends upon fees from sponsors to meet its $50-million annual budget, yet sponsors are often told, in effect: "You've begun with the wrong premise and therefore you are asking the wrong question. The right question is. . . ."

Headquartered in a sprawling complex of coral-colored buildings diagonally across from the Santa Monica Pier, Rand's staffers work in an informal atmosphere. Many ride bicycles to the office, and they dress as they please: loafers, sweat shirts, denims, sport jackets.

Every day at noon, a Rand group holds a volleyball game on the beach. Others keep tanned and fit by year-round jogging on the sand along the ocean front, or on nearby streets. One frequent jogger is Brian Jenkins, a rugged ex-Green Beret who specializes in studies of worldwide terrorism, and he is often accompanied on his trek through the streets by Arthur Alexander, a wiry marathon runner who specializes in Soviet economics, research and development.

Rand's informality, however, does not get in the way of its search for the right question--a process once described by Rice as "standing a problem on its head, to find ways of making it more solvable."

The relentless search began immediately after World War II when the Air Force created Rand (an acronym for research and development) to work entirely on defense and survival problems. One of Rand's first major projects was a study of the feasibility, design and military utility of an earth-circling satellite; Rand delivered a preliminary design in 1946, 11 years before the Soviets launched Sputnik One.

In that pre-Sputnik era when little national attention was given to the global military potential of Russia and China, Rand economists began taking long hard looks, in an effort to keep current on such questions as: How strong are they? How fast are they growing? How formidable will they be? What are their goals?

'Wrong Question'

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