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Weapons Labs Seeking Defense Conversion Work Face Hurdles

September 29, 1993|JONATHAN WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The national laboratory system has been at the center of the debate over shifting money from defense projects to civilian commercial programs and in targeting government and private investment to boost the competitiveness of U.S. industry.

Critics have complained for years that far too much of the federal research budget--which totals more than $70 billion annually--is devoted to military projects.

With the end of the Cold War, the George Bush Administration made some halting efforts to shift money from defense projects to civilian programs. But President Clinton and his technology maven, Vice President Al Gore, have promised to move much more aggressively in funding such efforts, as well as other programs that would help comprise a national industrial policy.

Acutely aware of the diminishing need for nuclear energy research and other military programs, the labs--which include nine major "multiprogram" facilities as well as dozens of smaller units--have been scrambling to redefine themselves by building ties to industry and stressing the commercial relevance of many of their technologies.

These efforts have been especially urgent at the three big nuclear weapons labs--Lawrence Livermore in Northern California, and Los Alamos and Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico--each of which has an annual budget of more than $1 billion.

Desperate to preserve their budgets--and even their existence--the weapons labs have been aggressively marketing their expertise in everything from supercomputers to computer-chip making to advanced materials. Through cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs), dozens of companies are now working with lab scientists on a wide variety of projects.

Yet the labs face huge hurdles in building these projects into more than a minor sideline. They have top-flight scientists and world-class facilities, but they also face extremely high costs. And their entrenched bureaucracies and idiosyncratic cultures are not well suited to the commercial world.

Critics of the lab establishment, such as former National Science Adviser Erich Bloch, say the only way to reform them is to cut their budgets drastically and force them to prove their worth in the market.

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