Working for the government has brought Gilbert V. Levin both satisfaction and frustration.
As an inventor-entrpreneur, contractor and consultant to various federal agencies, Levin has had the satisfaction of watching one of his experiments aboard the Viking spacecraft bring back the only evidence -- albeit equivocal -- suggesting life on Mars.
But as president of a small research firm, he has found the government sometimes hostile to both innovation and small businesses. f
His firm, Biospherics, a life sciences research company, sits on the edge of a large asphalt parking lot in Rockville flanked by body shops.
About 70 percent of the company's business is with the government -- a potpourri of projects including the Viking experiment, writing and producing antismoking and antialcohol literature, doing aquatic toxicology tests, designing monitors for the Navy to use to measure oil discharges from its ships and checking industrial hygeine in government agencies including the Bureau of the Mint and the Central Intelligence Agency.
"We went in there and sniffed around to see if it was a safe place to work," said Levin, a civil engineer who once worked for both the Maryland and District public health departments.
Levin's concerns are how the governemt treats innovation in general and small businesses in particular.
"To do innovative work is very difficult," he said. "There's the NIH problem -- the not-invented-here syndrome," he continued, describing agency officials who are unwilling to entertain proposals along new lines of inquiry.
And there is the clear predilection among some procurement officials for big business, Levin said. He is part of a group of officials of small businesses who are campaigning to get small firms a bigger share of the federal research dollar.
Small firms produced about 24 times as many major innovations as large firms and nearly four times as many as medium-sized firms per research and development dollar expended, but less than 4 percent of total federal government expenditures on R&D went to small firms, according to a paper prepared for the White House Conference on Small Business. Levin and others hope to alter what they see as an imbalance.
Attitudes are changing slowly, Levin said. A few years ago, "I went down to see the research head of a major agency, and he told me the truth -- that I was wasting my time because the era of small business was gone," Levin said. The federal officials said then that the agency intended to deal only with large aerospace firms for research, he recalled.
"Technical progress is more complex than it used to be. It takes a lot of dollars," Levin said.
Selling innovation isn't easy, he said, citing one of Biospherics' first prducts. In 1971 Biospherics developed a new waste-water treatment process that Levin says "produced astoundingly good results." I thought everybody was going to line up, but they didn't." It was 1973 before the process had a full-scale test in a municipal plant. "In 1974 Union Carbide signed a licensing agreement. Ever since, we've let them do the selling," he said.
"Federal contracting has severely constrained innovating," Levin said. "During the Nixon era, the Environmental Protection Agency came out with a mandate that no research contract should be let that couldn't be reduced to practice within three years. In effect that ended research. What it does is limit researh to hole-plugging."
Levin said "there are problems" in working on innovation for the government, but citing the Viking experiment, he added, "There are delicious rewards."