Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can the Scientists of War Turn to Peace?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can the Scientists of War Turn to Peace?

Article excerpt

A DECADE ago, more than 1,000 demonstrators blocked the entrance to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in northern California, in protest against its development of nuclear weapons.

Sitting in the county jail after our arrest, we spent several exhilarating days imagining what the lab's scientists could be doing instead with the resources at their disposal to address unmet human needs. At the time, however, few of our ideas penetrated the front gate.

Now, however, facing deep cuts in superpower nuclear arsenals and a vanishing rationale for their weapons research, the nation's three military research laboratories (Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia) are busy inventing alternative, nonmilitary missions for themselves. Established during World War II to house the Manhattan Project that invented the atomic bomb, the labs have historically been wedded to weapons.

But probably not much longer. Anxious to avoid layoffs, the directors of Los Alamos and Sandia are proposing a host of nonmilitary research missions to take up the slack, ranging from a coordinated effort to achieve energy security and a multi-agency program to restore the environment to the design of an energy-efficient, environmentally benign national transportation system.

Having invented the technology that generated vast quantities of nuclear waste, the labs now propose to become specialists in transporting, storing, and cleaning it up. Some technologies originally developed at the labs show great commercial promise. The world's most powerful computer, just installed at Los Alamos, could be used to research global climate change, design a more efficient internal combustion engine, or trace the human genetic system. Seismic sensors first used to monitor underground nuclear tests are being adapted to map oil fields, and laser technologies developed for Star Wars are being adapted for both industry and medicine.

Jay Stowsky, a political economist at the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy (BRIE), who is working with the directors of Los Alamos to define commercial missions for the lab, argues that the traditional direction of technology transfer needs to be reversed. Ordinarily, products designed for the military are adapted to create consumer "spinoffs," though as weapons have become more arcane, these adaptations have become more problematic. Mr. Stowsky suggests that the labs concentrate instead on developing civilian technologies which can, when necessary, create "spin-ons" for national defense.

The labs' directors are also promoting cost-shared, industry-directed partnerships between the labs and private corporations to develop what they call "generic," "enabling," "pre-competitive" technologies. Cooperating under the aegis of the labs to generate breakthroughs useful to all but exclusive to none, private firms then compete head-to-head for the most successful applications of their joint inventions. …

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