Rich Federal Research Trove Open to the Public Companies Can Engage in Cooperative Projects with Government Labs

Article excerpt

LAST fall, when Vivid Technologies Inc. was trying to develop an X-ray system for detecting bombs in airports, it got an assist from the Federal Aviation Administration Technical Center in Atlantic City, N. J.

The two parties signed a cooperative research agreement in October, giving the start-up company access to materials and human expertise that the FAA lab was "uniquely qualified to provide," says James Aldo, marketing director for the Waltham, Mass., firm. As a result, the company's detection device was significantly improved and is being installed at airports in London and Dallas.

If the Bush administration has its way, many more companies will reap such benefits from the nation's network of more than 700 federal research laboratories.

"I urge you to reach into the federal laboratories ... and pull the good ideas out," James Watkins, the secretary of energy, told an audience of about 500 businesspeople last week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The meeting marked the beginning of a "national technology initiative."

Admiral Watkins likened the initiative to "letting kids into a candy store." Some 160,000 scientists work at 10 of the federal labs alone.

While such efforts at "technology transfer" from federal research labs are not new, this initiative appears designed to stimulate public-private partnership at a time when both the labs and the United States economy are in a difficult transition.

In the midst of a weak economy, a presidential election campaign, and widespread concern that the US is losing its high-tech edge, the administration is touting the research labs as a fount of technology from which new products and companies can flow. The conference here was the first of several such events to be held around the country this year.

The labs themselves are in turmoil. Federal budgets are growing tighter. And the end of the cold war means that many of the biggest facilities that did weapons-related research for the Defense and Energy Departments "have to find a new role," says John Alic of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. …