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 nuclea r 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. This mix of cooperation and competition resembles the government-industry partnerships that enab led Japan to take the lead in consumer electronics. One such partnership at Los Alamos brings together GM, Ford, and Chrysler to improve the efficiency of batteries for electric cars.
But these are still small pilot programs, representing just a few percent of the labs' billion-dollar budgets. Some observers believe the labs' missions must be more radically altered. Rep. George Brown (D) of California, chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, proposes that all weapons work cease at Livermore and that it be rededicated as a center for civilian "critical technologies." He also suggests that Sandia concentrate on perfecting arms-control verification systems and tha t Los Alamos become the sole site for defense research. Many at Los Alamos, however, reject the proposal, asserting that they, too, should be shifting increasingly to nondefense work.
Indeed, according to sources within the labs, many scientists would "wholeheartedly embrace" working in the civilian sector if given the choice. The problem, they say, is primarily political. The current budget agreement prevents any cuts in the military budget from being transferred to the civilian sector, effectively blocking any change in the labs' allocation of funds. Old thinking dominates the White House, where nuclear weapons still reign supreme and "industrial policy" remains anathema. "But the d am is starting to break," says one Los Alamos official.
But some skeptics assert that the labs should simply be closed down, arguing that the nuclear "big science" culture nurtured within their walls renders conversion to new, less grandiose missions impractical. At a recent press conference held at Los Alamos (but not endorsed by its directors), scientists unveiled a proposal to create a nuclear capability thousands of times more destructive than the yields of current weapons in order to counter a supposed "asteroid threat." "Nukes forever!" shouted Lowell W ood, Livermore's most flamboyant nuclearist, tongue only half in cheek.
Those of us who sat on the pavement in front of Livermore a decade ago wondered then whether, if they were just given a different set of instructions, the scientists in these labs would be willing - in fact, might even prefer - to invent devices that enhance life rather than annihilate it. What if we told them to design technologies that save lives and heal the sick, that restore and preserve the planet? Could they marshal the same dedication and skill for these missions as they once did for the threaten ed destruction of their appointed adversaries?