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RAND Seeks to Be the Thoughtful Think Tank : Research: Company tries to polish its image. A long-stalled expansion plan may hinge on the effort's success.

January 02, 1994|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When she was offered a job at the RAND Corp., economist Julia Lowell made one thing clear: "No bombs or bullets" research for her.

In associating the international think tank with military hardware, Lowell had fallen prey to a common stereotype, one she soon found was inaccurate.

"My perception of what RAND does, even in security areas, was incorrect," said Lowell, 32, whose research concerns international monetary policy. "They study really important national security things . . . like arms control."

In other words, there are no bombs in the RAND Corp. basement, as some folks still believe. Nor is the place swarming with mad scientists hellbent on blowing the world to smithereens. Although the Defense Department is still its biggest client, the Santa Monica-based think tank is as likely to be studying child care in the military as plotting missile sites.

In recent years, RAND has begun trying to improve its public image, which was tinged by the company's involvement in landmark Cold War defense decisions and as a site for protests against the Vietnam War.

That effort is particularly important now: RAND needs the goodwill of the Santa Monica community to implement long-stalled plans to expand its headquarters, located between City Hall and the beach. The project would allow the think tank to put all its workers under one roof and add more conference space.

To pay for the expansion and create an endowment that would make it less dependent on government and foundation funding, RAND is also seeking to develop its nearly block-long stretch of investment property on Ocean Avenue, just south of its offices.

After several years of study, the expansion was approved unanimously by the Santa Monica City Council in November as part of an overall plan to revamp the Civic Center area. But a referendum on the proposal appears to have gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, so voters will probably get the final say.

That leaves RAND in the position of selling itself to a city that has been its home for more than 40 years.

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The groundwork for the sales pitch is already in place. After decades of aloofness in the face of criticism of its defense work, RAND has been busy mending fences with residents of one of the nation's most liberal cities. The think tank has scored points by doing good works ranging from leading a holiday charity drive to giving the city technical advice.

The reception, however, has not been uniformly warm.

Despite the end of the Cold War, opposition to the headquarters expansion project is tinged with anti-RAND sentiment. Some Santa Monicans, including Democratic state Sen. Tom Hayden, are not willing to let bygones be bygones.

To them, it seems, RAND is forever epitomized by a thinly disguised reference to the think tank in the 1964 black comedy film "Dr. Strangelove," in which the BLAND Corp. coldly performs a cost-benefit analysis for a "doomsday device."

"We can't get away from the vision of Dr. Strangelove," RAND computer scientist David McArthur said. "I love the movie, but it's not RAND."

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What is RAND then? It's somewhat akin to a university without students, populated by highly educated, intellectually curious sorts who become so engrossed in their work that the company pays them a bonus for using their vacation days. Called researchers or policy analysts, they grapple with the problems of today and look to the future.

This year, the think tank was involved in one of the country's hottest issues--gays in the military. Plucking staff analysts from several departments to study the matter from all angles, RAND concluded that sexual orientation is not germane to military service, advice the Pentagon and President Clinton did not heed. (Instead, the Pentagon and the President agreed to a compromise that continues to place restrictions on gay soldiers.)

RAND's health care experts, meanwhile, quietly advised Hillary Rodham Clinton's task force this year on health care reform. And other researchers made headlines with a controversial, explicitly worded sex survey of Santa Monica High School students.

On the aerospace front, a study released in December recommended against building more Milstar communications satellites, at a cost of $1 billion apiece, to help wage nuclear war. No need, RAND said.

Security is evident at the think tank's offices. Visitors must present identification and are not allowed to stroll the corridors without an escort.

In one building, nondescript offices flank long, dark hallways that appear uninviting, but were designed by a mathematician to maximize encounters between researchers.

"A lot of intellectual work we do here is stimulated by casual interaction," said Iao Katagiri, the think tank's community relations director.

Dress tends more toward Levi's than tweeds or pearls. And on a recent workday there was nary a pocket protector in sight, although RAND President James A. Thomson admitted a careful search of the premises would surely find a few.

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