WASHINGTON--For J.R. Shealy, an electrical engineer at Cornell University, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) isn’t about shooting down missiles. Instead, it’s a way to fund his pioneering research on growing semiconductor crystals.

WASHINGTON--James A. Ionson’s four-year tenure as director of SDI’s Innovative Science and Technology (IST) program was punctuated by controversy over the idea of a strategic defense and the role of the academic community in SDI research. Although he left last month to start a new high-tech. research firm, Ionson’s brashness and enthusiasm for new technology remain undiminished. His disdain for academic critics of SDI also shows no signs of mellowing.

Ionson glowered when asked, during an interview shortly before his April 8 departure, whether the IST program was founded partly as a way to generate more support for SDI on university campuses. “That’s garbage, absolute garbage,” he growled. “And when I’m out [in private business] I’ll...

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