As Damon Runyon once observed: "The race isn't always to the swift nor the battle to the strong--but that's the way to bet." When it comes to managing its proposed new technology policy initiatives, however, the Clinton Administration is gambling on a long shot.
For reasons soaked as much in internal politics as pragmatic thought, the Administration is betting billions that the Commerce Department is the best launching pad for boosting America's technological competitiveness.
Over the next four years, for example, funding for Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology will grow by more than $1 billion. Indeed, NIST (formerly the National Bureau of Standards) is being championed by both Vice President Al Gore and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown as the key civilian agency for coordinating competitiveness.
"We've already got a Commerce Department; we've got an NIST--so let's build on that," argues a White House science and technology source. "We're trying to have NIST do for technology development what the National Science Foundation has done for science research."
But, as Runyon might have put it, that's a little like asking a jockey to become a sumo wrestler.
Launched in 1990, the Advanced Technology Programs is now a fairly puny, $50-million-a-year effort without much of a track record.
Indeed, the typical American research university has a better track record of commercializing technology than NIST.
So is boosting the Advanced Technology Programs to $1 billion a year a good bet on competitiveness? Or is it really a speculative gamble?
A smarter, better and cheaper plan would have been for the Administration to make DARPA--the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency--the nation's lead agency in promoting technological competitiveness. That way, the Administration could have gotten two things for the price of one: an agency with a proven record of helping commercialize cutting-edge technologies and a leader in the "defense conversion" effort to help move the aerospace-defense industry into more commercial markets.
Over the last 35 years, DARPA, which at Clinton's urging will soon drop the "D" in its name, has been the Pentagon's venture capitalist and technologist.
The agency has played an integral part in the development of computer networking, computer graphics, custom silicon chip design, supercomputers and new materials.
Unlike many other defense research efforts, DARPA-funded technologies consistently found their way into the market.
The Pentagon research agency has helped spawn dozens of successful non-defense technologies, companies and services, including Internet, the nation's "digital highway" for computer communications that the Administration says it wants to expand.
America's high technology community has far more respect for DARPA than for NIST or the Commerce Department.
In fact, the concept of turning DARPA into a "dual-use" technology agency--that is, an agency energetically funding development of both civilian and military technologies--has been discussed for years: Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) proposed legislation last year that would have had such an effect on DARPA, but the White House rejected the idea.
"Look," says the White House staffer, "the fundamental problem with making DARPA into a dual-use agency is that you end up with it trying to reconcile those two different goals of commercial and military technologies; you're inviting schizophrenia. . . . The risk of not having a defense technology agency is too high."
On the surface, that argument has logic. In practice, it collapses. It's hard to imagine that technologies such as software, silicon chip design, new materials, telecommunications and laser physics do not have commercial and military uses. In other words, research in these domains will automatically benefit both the civilian and military sectors. Consequently, DARPA's national security mission remains safe.
Put it another way: What offers the greatest rate of return? The extra dollar invested in Commerce and NIST? Or the extra dollar invested in DARPA? Which agency has the most legitimacy?
Which agency is used to working with research universities, entrepreneurs and Fortune 1,000 research departments? In purely political terms, which agency is in the best position to leverage its resources?
No matter how well thought out a policy is, you need institutions capable of implementing it. Without those institutions, you don't have a policy--you have a hypothesis.
The issues of technological competitiveness and defense conversion are so important that it is a shame the Administration's technology proposal tried to grow a jockey into a sumo wrestler instead of building on the success of a truly effective agency.