By Jeffery Kahn, JBKahn@lbl.gov
Industry, academic, and government leaders joined in Berkeley last week to ponder how to better use the resources of the national laboratories to enhance America's economic competitiveness.
LBL Director Charles V. Shank convened the national conference as a follow-up to his service on President Bush's National Critical Technologies Panel. Twenty-two technologies deemed critical to U.S. economic prosperity and security were identified by that panel in its April 1991 report.
In opening remarks, Shank said the time is ripe for industry and the national laboratories to collaborate on the development of a range of critical technologies.
"For the last four years," he said, "every year has seen a new list of critical technologies generated. Many of these lists overlap and it is becoming clear that a consensus on priorities has developed. The challenge now is to move beyond lists and plans to action through partnerships, programs, and projects that advance these critical technologies."
Shank noted that the Department of Energy invests $3 billion annually on nondefense research in its laboratories. This present technical and scientific base has the potential to provide a competitive advantage to American industry, he said.
The conference, which was organized by Associate Laboratory Director Martha Krebs, drew an impressive cross-section of national leaders, including Secretary of Energy James Watkins and representatives from many of the national laboratories. Industries represented included Motorola, Intel, Abbot Laboratories, Hughes Aircraft, Chevron, Dupont, Dow Chemical, Cray Research, Bristol Meyer Squibb, General Motors, IBM, and Upjohn.
Watkins said the Bush Administration supported further cooperation between national laboratories and industry as a means of providing a better return on taxpayers' investments. While asking the labs to cooperate with industry, he also asked the business community to support federal research spending, which is he said is critical to the success of such endeavors.
Watkins said that a new wave of industry and national laboratory partnerships has begun to emerge in the last year. In that period, DOE laboratories and industry signed 130 Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs).
The Energy Secretary acknowledged that some CRADAs have proven difficult to fashion and many months can elapse before terms agreeable to all participants can be derived. To hasten the process, Watkins said DOE may have to develop generic CRADAs that serve as template contracts for different types of businesses. DOE will convene a conference in the fall to review the lessons learned in the past year so that the CRADA process can be streamlined and improved, Watkins said.
Will Happer, DOE Director of Energy Research, was asked what kind of financial windfall laboratories could expect when commercially successful products were generated as a result of a CRADA. Happer said the measure of success of a CRADA was the benefit to the nation as a whole rather than the minimal direct payback that laboratories could expect.
Speakers at the conference generally agreed that America's international competitiveness is eroding but that federal research efforts could help reverse this trend.
Said Daniel Burton, executive vice president of the Council on Competitiveness, "In the past decade, there has been a sharp erosion of commercial development of American products based on critical technology. It was a time when the nation was waiting for Godot. The country has been engaged in a political debate about `picking economic winners' that I can only call existential.
"For 10 years," Burton said, "we have been bogged down on the picking winners issue. While we debated, a broad international consensus emerged in Japan, Europe, and here as well, identifying the critical technologies of the future."
Eugene Wong, associate director of industrial technology for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the Bush Administration supports the development of "generic technologies" that have been deemed vital to the nation's well-being.
"The support for the government to participate in the development of these generic technologies ranges from those who favor a hands-on approach by government to those who favor a hands-off approach," Wong said.
Several speakers said the notion that the federal government is incapable of providing enlightened assistance to targeted economic sectors is a false dogma. They cited aeronautics and agriculture, America's two leading export industries.
Hans Mark, chancellor of the University of Texas, said these two sectors provide a model of how the country can go about developing a coherent industrial policy that benefits both industry and the public.
Mark, who worked for 15 years in the aviation industry, said that last year the American aeronautical industry had a net positive balance of more than $20 billion in exports of manufactured products. American airplanes, designed by American engineers and built by American workers, make up 85 percent of the world's commercial fleet.
Mark said the industry's competitive strength was attributable to three factors. First, the federal government has made a consistent, ongoing investment in the development of aeronautical technology for more than 70 years. Second, a close relationship between aeronautical contractors and their customers has made possible the efficient transfer of technology from research and development to the manufacturing stage. And third, there is no adversarial relationship between the government and the aeronautical industry.
Mark said agriculture, America's second largest export industry, benefits from a very similar long term national investment strategy.
He said the method of technology transfer in agriculture was remarkably simple: The government places agricultural agents all over the country who provide farmers the latest research information.
Said Mark, "The problem of coming up with a coherent industrial policy is not as complex as it is made out to be. We have models showing us how to do this. The public sector is very good at picking winners when the winners are generic technology rather than particular products. We have a long history of success in this."
For what amounted to a full day, conference participants split into five working groups devoted to the development of strategies for laboratory and industry collaborations in advanced materials, biotechnology and life sciences, energy and environment, information and communications, and manufacturing. After additional synthesis of their recommendations is complete, reports from each of the working groups will be published in the proceedings of the conference.