Federal labs promote their wares, but few seem to be buying
Four years after Congress required federal laboratories to promote the use of their nonclassified research results among the public at large, the labs are finding few takers.
Under the Technology Innovation Act of 1980, all federal labs with research budgets of more than $20 million are required actively to pursue sharing nonclassified information with people outside government. They also should have one person working on technology transfer full-time.
But even with this federal mandate, some labs are finding this technology transfer a difficult task. Some businesses, state and local governments, and social-service organizations have benefited from this technology transfer, say some lab officials. But it is still apparently an underutilized resource.
Eugene Stark of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico says that ''one-quarter to one-third of the (nation's) scientific manpower is in the government. The government has cornered the market on the scientific community. So the thought is to spread the wealth.''
Some labs have been sharing research data for years through scientific journals. ''But, that's not enough,'' Dr. Stark says.
One of the problems with trying to fulfill the law's requirements is that the law itself is not generally well known.
''There is some public interest,'' Stark says, ''but most of industry does not know (about it), and in the past, it has often tried to shy away from federal involvement.''
William Marcuse of the Brookhaven National Labratory in Upton, N.Y., highlights another problem: ''Technology transfer is a contradiction of terms. Unless someone can see a specific demand for a particular technology, it's like pushing cooked spaghetti.''
''Communities don't want a submarine. We're not transferring submarine communications. We want to take the expertise of the lab and apply that to the needs of a community,'' says Donna Mansfield, who has worked with the Naval Underwater Systems Center (NUSC) in New London, Conn.
Ten years ago, the Federal Labratory Consortium (FLC) formed to try to solve some of these problems.
More than 300 federal labs (representing more than 80 percent of the federal research effort) have joined the FLC, and are working to establish a network for linking federal technology with the needs of outside interests.
Stark, chairman of the FLC, says the consortium helps labs share their resources by contacting potential users, such as trade groups, or the US Conference of Mayors.
And the FLC serves as a referral network, matching specific needs with specific labs.
''More than half the calls I receive are for something my lab doesn't do,'' he says.
Stark says the work of the FLC is important to meeting the terms of the law: ''It used to be thought that if federal labs published reports (of their activities) that was enough. Good ideas aren't enough. You have to help put them into practice.''
Different labs are taking different approaches to doing this. For instance, Stark says the Los Alamos lab is offering technical advice to start-up companies.
Dr. Marcuse says that the facilities at Brookhaven are ''here to be available.''
The facilities and staff can be equaled at only a few places in the would, he says, and some large businesses such as Exxon, Bell Labs, and IBM use them.
But the industry uses are still largely untapped. Clifford Lanham of the Harry Diamond Labratory in Adelphi, Md., says that there are some technologies that are ''ripe for commercialization.''
At the Diamond lab, research has developed the technology for an industrial high-temperature thermometer. ''We're looking for a company that will build them ,'' he says.
''There are probably three or four of these technologies lying around every federal lab,'' he adds.
Dr. Stark agrees, and says that companies now working with the federal labs ''will find a gold mine. There is a pent-up supply of technology now, and the plums will be picked soon.''
State and local governments have benefited from federal research. For instance, Beaverton, Ore., was having trouble with the rubber cover on its reservoir. Working through the FLC, town officials were guided to the Lawrence Livermore Labratory in California.
Scientists there recommended painting the cover with a special paint, rather than replacing it.
Stark says the city saved saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In other cases, labs have checked out a Connecticut town's sirens, set up a system to monitor fuel use for the New York City Police Department, and provided special filters for rescue vehicles cleaning up after Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980.