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« World still needs America to lead | Main | The grand strategic advantage of Obama's blank slate »
Sunday
Dec072008

Revitalizing national labs for great challenges

As a strategic planner, I'm wary of the Manhattan Project mindset. In general, I find it escapist at heart - as in, "Big government, make this problem magically disappear." But with all this talk of a huge government stimulus package, I find myself warming to the idea. Let me tell you why.

Since 2005, I've advised Oak Ridge National Laboratory on long-range strategic issues, and one thing I've definitely noticed is the staff's pronounced aging. When the average age of your scientists begins to hover around 50 or higher, that's not a good sign for American research and development.

I recently spoke with Dr. Sherrill Greene, director of nuclear technology programs, about the issue. His argument was straightforward: When you look at the history of federal investment in research and development, you see two big humps.

The first one was - no surprise - the Manhattan Project itself, which birthed the "secret city" that was Oak Ridge in the 1940s, along with a host of other national labs. In doing so, the Manhattan Project didn't just suck in large numbers of scientists into government service, it created huge technology spin-offs that the American economy has leveraged for decades.

A far larger and longer hump was created by the Apollo space project a generation later. In Greene's opinion, Manhattan enabled Apollo because the federal government had already concentrated an entire generation of scientific talent at the labs. Without that brainpower, the race to the moon might not have been won.

Apollo also drew in a second generation of great scientists, and the national lab system has lived off that cohort ever since, the problem now being that this generation has largely retired, leaving the cupboard increasingly bare.

Does that damage America's economic competitiveness in this "flat world"? Check out any number of breakthrough technologies developed by America over the past several decades, and somewhere along the line, you'll find some combination of the national labs was intimately involved in cracking a tough nut or two.

Simply put, the need for a "third hump" is staring us in the face, says Greene, who worries that it'll never come unless some new sense of national emergency is created and exploited by our nation's political leadership.

Over the long term, the answer is obvious: The rapid rise of a global middle class over the next quarter century will stress our planet in terms of energy, food and water consumption like nothing that's ever come before it. We either meet that demand for a better standard of living more efficiently than we've done in the past or we'll leave to our children not just an impoverished existence - relatively speaking - but a far more politically unstable one.

Let's be honest, long-range dangers produce long-range plans but few short-term dollars, especially during an economic crisis as profound as the one we're suffering right now.

Fortunately, Washington routinely cranks blue-ribbon panel studies that are designed to scare the heck out of the American public on this or that subject, with this week's entry on weapons of mass destruction being more compelling than most.

The "World at Risk" report by the congressionally-mandated team of "grey eminences" led by former Florida senator Bob Graham states emphatically that "unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

Here's my advice to the new Obama administration: Somewhere in that stimulus package shove a broad new federal mandate on sensing technologies for detecting the movement of nuclear and biological materials. Let that be your bureaucratic top-cover for some new R&D spending because anything we can do to prime the pump at the national labs will pay great dividends down the road.

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