Battle of the Labs

As part of his pitch for "Star Wars," Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson points to the jet engine as an example of the way the world shares the benefits of military research, implying more of the same from research on the program that he heads.

Good salesmanship, perhaps, but bad history. Sir Frank Whittle, the Briton who invented the jet engine 50 years ago, was thinking of faster planes to deliver mail, not bombs, and the military got involved after the fact. Far from helping Abrahamson's cause, the history of the jet engine actually helps make the case of critics who worry about the rising share of federal research money that goes to military programs.

Not only does the spending pattern siphon off money that could be going to the basic research that builds the foundation for new technology, it also siphons off scientific talent that should be engaged in American industry's battle to hold consumer markets at home and break into them abroad.

As Times writer Anne C. Roark wrote recently in a carefully balanced survey of the debate over military research, there are arguments on both sides, and the nation certainly must invest in projects that help it keep up its guard.

But that does not excuse a huge, $350-million fusion research facility's gathering dust at Lawrence Livermore laboratory because of a shift from energy research to weapons research. The Mirror Fusion Test Facility described by Roark is idle because of a turn toward research with short-term weapons payoffs and away from basic research that may or may not lead to new energy sources.

Military research now is growing at the expense of civilian research while the United States agonizes over why it is so hard to compete in world markets. One reason may well be that graduates of, say, Japanese engineering schools have no defense industry to distract them from designing compact disc stereo systems or exploring fusion.

There also is a question about the quality of defense research. The Reagan Administration asked for more than $5 billion in the next budget for Star Wars research. Congress appears ready to stake it to something more than $3 billion. But Sidney D. Drell, a Stanford physicist who both consults on Star Wars and opposes the project, says that $2 billion would provide a "helluva" research program.

One reason for the difference is a lack of peer review in the Star Wars process--scientific jargon for letting a panel of disinterested scientists look over a proposed research project to see whether it makes sense. Scientists say that with proper peer review the government could get much more science out of the Star Wars money than it now gets.

Those are immediate problems. The more serious consequences may well come a generation from now. Between 20% and 30% of the country's young scientists move from the campus into defense research. As one Navy physicist told Roark, he worries that "10, 15, 20 years down the road . . . the U.S. will have lost an entire generation of real scientists"--a loss that he compared with the loss to China when the Cultural Revolution shut down its universities.

The long-term consequences may well be one of the most serious questions facing the United States--not only for defense research but also for its ability to hold its position as a world leader in science and technology. It is the kind of question that is made to order for the Office of Technology Assessment, a congressional think tank. Congress should pose the question as soon as possible.

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