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We Must Be Technologically Competitive

The principal responsibility of the U.S. government, and that of any free nation, is to provide for the economic well being of all of its citizens and for the national security. It seems, however, that the state of our economy and trade relations are treated today as secondary to geopolitics and defense issues in the thinking of the executive branch. The expanding U.S. budget and trade deficits are symptomatic of the real ailment in the United States: the decline of our industrial base and a pen

By | February 23, 1987

The principal responsibility of the U.S. government, and that of any free nation, is to provide for the economic well being of all of its citizens and for the national security. It seems, however, that the state of our economy and trade relations are treated today as secondary to geopolitics and defense issues in the thinking of the executive branch. The expanding U.S. budget and trade deficits are symptomatic of the real ailment in the United States: the decline of our industrial base and a pending decline in the U.S. standard of living.

This is not to say that national security is unimportant. There is a need, however, for conscientious national debate on our military as well as economic priorities—not just of a Strategic Defense Initiative, but also an equivalent Strategic Competitive Initiative. World stability may be more affected by increasing confrontational relations among trading partners than by the threat of nuclear weapons.

I believe that a strong U.S. military deterrent force is vital to the free world. I also believe that our Trident fleet represents a more than adequate deterrent. Hence, even if SDI were to be shown technically and strategically sound (and I have great reservations that it is), I would not have given it the priority it has been assigned.

The issue is once again priorities. The SDI debate is now taking place at much too late a stage in the policy-making process. The evolution of SDI reflects the way science- and technology-related policy develops in the United States today; i.e., with little deliberation that includes members of the science and technology communities.

The Materials Processing Center at MIT, which I direct, is associated with the SDI research consortium on composites. DOD-sponsored research constitutes about one-third of our annual $7.5 million operating budget and SDI represents about one-third of the DOD total. Nearly half of our work is industrially supported and involves a wide range of research on advanced materials and processes. One objective is the transfer of technology to the marketplace.

I am not opposed in general to the acceptance of DOD research funds by this nation's universities. Historically, DOD sources have played a crucial role in academic research which has had, in many cases, commercial implications. Although SDI is mission-oriented, there are elements of SDI research that have commercial potential: composite materials, for example.

Some composites are lightweight materials of high dimensional stability that may be processed in space, thus reducing expensive payload and launch weight and volume, for a variety of space applications which are not exclusively military. Commercial development of space is important. In addition, the characteristics that make composites attractive candidates in space make them attractive as well for earthbound applications in automobiles and aircraft, for example.

In 1984 the Pentagon specified five areas of materials technology that it wished to access in Japan: gallium arsenide for advanced electronics, opto-electronics, carbon fibers for composites, high performance ceramics, and heat resistant materials. In 1981, Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MIT!) began a 10-year national program of Basic Technologies for Future Industries in which advanced materials represented six of 12 research themes. Moreover, shortly after the United States began enlisting European organizations in SDI research, France created an all-European, 19-nation high tech R&D program called Eureka. Eureka has targeted many of the same technologies as SDI, although with a commercial rather than a military orientation.

Our trading partners have developed large national or international programs aimed at the marketplace of the next decade and beyond. Without a comparable national focus in the United States, we may well find ourselves importing high-tech materials for both military and civilian systems from our trading partners, at the expense of our own industrial base and American jobs.

I do not consider that our involvement in SDI research represents an institutional endorsement of SDI. Nor had I considered that our work in energy-related research in the 1970s constituted an endorsement of a particular energy system. Research at intellectually free universities is a matter of personal choice. Each faculty member has the right to choose to accept or not accept funds from any source, civilian or military. As MIT's President, Paul Gray, has said, there should be no political test for research.

Of course, research projects, military or civilian, are not compatible with the university environment if they are classified or involve publication restrictions. Our SDI work on composites involves no such provisions.

Much R&D remains before large-scale commercialization of composites occurs. The SDI consortium—which includes eight universities, two national laboratories and six industrial research organizations—provides a national focus on the development of composite materials, providing a substantial response to the programs of some of our trading partners and, I hope, minimizing future dependence on foreign sources for what are likely to become strategically as well as commercially important engineering materials.

We are engaged in a global competition to develop advanced materials that will find their way into a variety of military and civilian engineering systems. There are many reasons, including the viability of the domestic industrial base, to try .to win a large share of this future market. Although DOD should not be looked upon as the U.S. equivalent of Japan's MITI, I cannot think of a good reason why we should not pursue DOD research with the objective of meeting both performance standards and production efficiency.

Latanision's address is Materials Processing Center, MIT, Cambridge, MA 02139.

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