A Risky Alliance


Washington. -- "The triumph of hope over experience," is how Samuel Johnson characterized second marriages after bad first ones.

The same might be applied to the recently announced partnership of Washington and the auto industry for the purpose of inventing a super-efficient automobile. A blissful outcome to this relationship can't be ruled out. But the government's previous flops in pushing civilian technologies do invite wariness.

Circumstances differed among the failed high-tech extravaganzas of the past. But whatever the causes, the trail is littered with the multi-billion-dollar debris of a flock of government-backed civilian projects, including the Clinch River Breeder Reactor and other nuclear systems, the supersonic transport, synthetic fuels, solar energy and so on. Technological challenges alone posed sufficient difficulties for these ambitious projects, but as soon as they were hatched, they usually became enmeshed in pork-barrel politics.

The auto deal, announced by the president last week, brings the Big 3 automakers and the government's formidable research establishment into what is intended to be a decade-long collaboration aimed at tripling fuel efficiency and slashing pollution. To accomplish this, the automakers' researchers will team up with the labs of the Pentagon and the Department of Energy -- both eager for new work as post-Cold War priorities and budget reductions take place in defense spending.

As explained by John Gibbons, the president's assistant for science and technology, the aim is to leapfrog today's automotive technology "to get past some of the things that still make the automobile a big factor in the pollution equation and dependence on imported oil." A successful collaboration would preserve the convenience of the automobile while severely reducing the many burdens it inflicts on society.

From World War II on, government and industry compiled a solid record of accomplishment in developing military and aerospace hardware. Why can't this capability be transferred to the new era of intense worldwide economic competition?

Maybe it can. But the mindset required for satisfying the big spenders in defense has so far proved a dud in meeting the cost-sensitive requirements of the civilian marketplace. In fact, the head of the Aerospace Industries Association, Don Fuqua, has bluntly warned against optimism about the potential for conversion to civilian products.

In formulating the auto project, President Clinton's planners have delved deeply into the lessons of the past. Recognizing that Washington is poorly tuned to the commercial marketplace, they've given industry a major role in managing the project. But mindful that willingness to invest money is the ultimate measure of industry's intentions, finance is on a 50-50 basis. Since industrial labs face bottom-line pressures, they will focus on projects with potential for quick marketplace results. The government labs will concentrate on long-range problems.

Even with these safeguards, doubts are in order about whether technological criteria will eventually be undermined by political factors. Consider, for example, the Space Station, a legacy of Ronald Reagan's enthusiasm for colossal high-tech projects. It was initially sold to Congress as a much-needed celestial base for scientific research in zero-gravity. But scientists have actually never had much enthusiasm for the costly Space Station, preferring instead cheap, unmanned launch vehicles, which expand the opportunities for research.

As the costs have risen, scientific enthusiasm has further declined because of past experiences with research budgets being cannibalized to pay for highly visible hardware. But in the meantime, the Space Station has developed a payroll spread among almost all the states. Technologically, it's a turkey, but politically it's invincible.

That's the transformation to be feared when government ventures into big technology. The cost-sharing requirement provides some safeguard against political manipulation -- but only for the 50 percent provided by industry, which can be expected to look for value for its money.

About the other half, there's no way to be sure. Congressmen follow big money like hounds on a hot scent. One result is that government-financed projects live on long after they deserve to be redrawn or terminated. The hope is that this time it will be different.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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