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Academia Can Bring Defense R&D in From the Cold

September 16, 1993|MICHAEL SCHRAGE | Michael Schrage is a writer, consultant and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He writes this column independently for The Times. He can be reached by electronic mail at on the Internet

The most cost-effective, globally competitive and technologically sophisticated product of the Cold War won't be found deep in underground silos or hurtling overhead in geosynchronous orbit or embedded in millions of lines of command-and-control software. It can be found in the nation's research universities and their graduates. Dollar for dollar, the Pentagon has gotten the most bang for its research buck from the places that hand out sheepskin.

The Cold War made possible the world's greatest research university system. Without the Pentagon's largess, there is no technologically preeminent Caltech or University of California, no Stanford and Silicon Valley, no MIT and Route 128, no global Internet. Without the research universities, the Pentagon doesn't get the never-ending stream of technological breakthroughs that keep America the world's leading military superpower.

More like co-dependency than symbiosis, the intense relationship between the Pentagon and the nation's research universities shaped America's science and technology research agenda. The deal--critics called it a Faustian bargain--was simple: If the Pentagon provided the money and the access, the universities would generate the best research and brightest graduates. For decades, both sides delivered.

Now that the Cold War is over, the Pentagon is as concerned with "defense conversion" and "dual use" (military and commercial) technologies as it is with breakthrough research that can redefine a weapons system. While universities have rightly been concerned about their role in boosting regional innovation and economic development, they've been slow to assume the necessary leadership or partnership role in managing defense conversion.

"Unfortunately, we have found ourselves so wrapped up in a defensive posture over issues like (indirect cost reimbursement) and keeping costs down that we haven't been as forceful and articulate on these topics as perhaps we should have been," acknowledges Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Charles Vest.

"Research universities are now facing post-Cold War issues too," says Richard Cyert, President Emeritus of Carnegie-Mellon University, who believes that universities must play a more active role in promoting economic development. "Perhaps defense conversion is one of the ways universities can realign their missions with the concerns of the community."

Universities must play as big a role in defense conversion today as they did in yesterday's defense buildups. Is retraining a concern? Universities are in the business of education and training. Need people who understand and appreciate market implications of science and high technology? The research universities are filled with them. Want institutions that have ongoing relationships with venture capitalists and Fortune 1,000 companies? The nation's top research universities have those too.

Think the national labs face even thornier conversion problems? Guess who manages them? The University of California system alone runs three: Livermore, Los Alamos and Lawrence. You cannot meaningfully address the national issue of defense conversion in science and technology without the university participating.

Today's deal must reflect this new reality: The Pentagon and the universities now need to focus their collaboration on defense industry conversion and dual-use technologies.

It's time for the White House National Economic Council--which oversees defense conversion policy--to convene a "conversion summit" of the nation's top 25 research universities. Collectively, these schools receive more than 80% of the federal research dollars, so they have the most at stake. That's also a manageable number of participants and underscores the point that defense conversion must be treated as a national issue, not just as a collection of local and regional problems.

The universities, in concert with the relevant funding agencies, should come up with plans and programs that better position universities as a medium for defense conversion.

"That's a reasonable suggestion," says Ted Poehler, vice provost of research for Johns Hopkins, which receives more federal research dollars than any other university. "The inclination now is still toward industry, innovation and economic development rather than defense conversion."

"We could learn a lot from each other," agrees Walter Massey, the former national science director who is now provost of the UC system.

Massey points out that the University of California just set up its own Defense Conversion Council. Rober L. Byer, a Stanford University professor and former dean of research, notes that the California Council on Science and Technology--a collaboration initiated by the state's universities--has moved with both industry and the state to apply for federal defense conversion grants called TRPs, for technology reinvestment programs.

"The (economic) situation in California is so bad, we had to take the bull by the horns," says Byer.

But it would be a mistake to let defense conversion policies be defined state by state. The issue isn't just funding; it's what kind of institutions we need to cope effectively with this wrenching industrial transition.

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