According to one Senate staff member who requested anonymity, "the SDI Institute is in better shape this year by virtue of the fact that there is more information available." The subject could come up as part of congressional hearings on the SDI program scheduled for later this month. With the current strenuous debate over early SDI deployment, however, no one in Congress or the administration lists the Institute as an immediate priority.
Meredith Neizer, acting project manager for the SDI Institute in the defense secretary's office, said the proposed think tank would be staffed with technical experts to advise SDI managers on overall system architecture and technical problems in establishing a space-based missile defense system. It would be modeled after other R&D centers financed by the Defense Department, such as the Rand Corporation and the Institute for Defense Analyses. Neizer said the institute would have an annual budget of between $20 million and $30 million, and a staff of about 200 engineers and scientists representing various disciplines.
One reason for establishing a new think tank rather than setting up a separate division in the Pentagon is that the SDI Institute would be able to pay higher salaries and move faster than would an organization staffed by civil servants.
The existing SDI office has strict limits on the number of people it can hire, noted supporters of the idea, and lacks the technical expertise to run a research project of SDI's scope.
Objections were raised last year in both chambers of Congress when the Defense Department announced its intent to establish the center. The Pentagon wanted its SDI office to review all proposals for contracts to run the Institute.
In Senate debate on the issue last August, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) asked whether the proposed Institute would simply be a cheerleader for a politically controversial project, with a staff handpicked by Pentagon insiders.
"The Star Wars program is a research program. Its success will depend upon the integrity and credibility of its scientists," Levin said.
A General Accounting Office study released in November found that nine of 11 independent consultants believed an outside "peer review" of proposals to operate the Institute was necessary. The Pentagon, however, contends that it alone should pick the contractor.
"Normally, congressional approval is not needed to create these institutes," said Charles Brown, an aide to Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.), who sponsored an amendment to the fiscal 1987 defense budget bill that bars creation of an SDI Institute by the Defense Department without specific authorization by Congress. "However, in light of the fact that the SDI is so controversial, we'll be very conscious of pumping more money into the program."
Neizer said she hopes the Institute could begin hiring staff as early as October if authorizing legislation is passed this year. "We need it as soon as possible," she said.