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New Research Chief Sees Foreign Cooperation on SSC

WASHINGTON—The Superconducting Supercollider will have international partners in its construction, promises the new acting director of the Office of Energy Research within the Department of Energy. On April 27 James Decker took over as head of the $1.8 billion research program when Alvin Trivelpiece became executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The 46-year-old Decker, who was hired by Trivelpiece in 1973 after working as a plasma physicist at AT&T B

By | May 18, 1987

WASHINGTON—The Superconducting Supercollider will have international partners in its construction, promises the new acting director of the Office of Energy Research within the Department of Energy.

On April 27 James Decker took over as head of the $1.8 billion research program when Alvin Trivelpiece became executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The 46-year-old Decker, who was hired by Trivelpiece in 1973 after working as a plasma physicist at AT&T Bell Laboratories, has held a succession of departmental posts, most recently serving as the office's deputy director.

In an hour-long interview, Decker ticked off the range of issues facing the office, which operates nine multiprogram laboratories and 27 specialized facilities that employ more than 30,000 scientists and engineers. On the previous day he had waded through more than 400 questions fired at department officials by the dozens of states seeking help in preparing site proposals due August 3 for the $6 billion SSC project.

"I'm confident we will have international cooperation and participation on the SSC, first in the construction phase and later in the research," Decker said. "The Japanese and the Canadians already have shown interest. As for the Europeans, I think it will come down to talking with individual countries. Our international affairs office is taking the lead on this, along with the State Department."

At the same time, Decker brushed aside the argument that foreign countries should be barred from the project to ensure a competitive edge for American high-tech firms. "It doesn't make sense for individual countries, even those as wealthy as we are, to do these types of projects by themselves. And there's no good scientific reason to have similar facilities, in separate countries, coming on line at around the same time."

"If Congress makes such a decision [to exclude foreign participation], then it becomes a budget issue. In either case, however, I'm certain that the scientific cooperation would continue."

Takes Two to Transfer

Another issue high on Decker's agenda is improving the process of transferring technology from the federal labs to private industry. Although he admitted there's room for improvement, he had strong words for those who pin the blame on a sluggish federal bureaucracy.

"It takes two parties to make it work," he said. "It's certainly true that government has to make the technology available. But U.S. companies must be willing to pick up On it, too, and that's a substantial part of the problem. There's often more interest by foreign companies than U.S. companies in what we're doing in our labs.

"I also have a problemwith people who focus exclusively on the patent process," he continued. "Effective technology transfer requires personal contact. We have a program that has been going on for a couple years in which we share the cost of bringing in industry scientists to develop contacts. Consulting is also very important. It's a real advantage for a company to hire a lab scientist to be a consultant on a project he was involved in.

Decker said he's not worried that a successful transfer of technology may mean the loss of experienced personnel. "It doesn't bother me when a scientist goes off to start his own company. In fact, that may be the ultimate form of technology transfer."

Even as Congress debates the fate of next year's budget, Decker's staff has already begun to prepare budgets for fiscal year 1989. Citing the numerous projects that the department hopes to move ahead on in the coming year, Decker said he doubted the list will grow any longer. He ruled out any push for a major increase in the office's funding along the lines of the administration pledge to double the NSF budget within five years, although he pointed out that Reagan's endorsement of the SSC was tantamount to such a commitment.

Decker, of course, will not have the final word in any of these debates. He may not even have a voice; the administration has proposed an outside scientist as director of the research office, according to sources in Congress, but the routine process of obtaining security clearance is expected to take several months. As one Senate energy committee staffer noted, looking to the end of the Reagan administration, "the biggest problem may be finding somebody who's willing to serve."

Decker admits there's more than enough for him to do. Widely praised as a competent and knowledgeable science administrator, he is said by one House staff to offer "a good corporate memory" for the department.

Asked about his political savvy, his former boss offers this endorsement: "Smart people can get the experience they need very quickly," said Trivelpiece. "And I consider Jim to be one of the smart people in this town."

Mervis is on the staff of The Scientist.

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