The White House appeared to signal this week that the administration will provide funding in its new budget for initial development of a nationwide data network that would connect thousands of universities and companies throughout the country on a sort of superhighway for information.
As envisioned, the network would allow information to be exchanged at the rate of 50,000 single-spaced typed pages a second -- at least 1,000 times faster than all but a few of the data networks in use today. In order to achieve such speeds, new techniques must be developed for, among other things, more rapidly routing information to the proper destinations and sorting out real data from garble.
Technology experts say a commitment to the data network, though relatively modest monetarily, would be a sign that administration policy is making a subtle shift toward endorsing at least a limited government role in bolstering the nation's industrial competitiveness by directing money to key technology projects.
Supporters of the network say the faster swapping of information and the use of high-speed supercomputers would help scientists more efficiently solve complex problems in dozens of fields, including biology, weather forecasting and speech recognition.
With some initial government funding to jump-start the project, supporters say, private companies are likely to expand the network, perhaps laying fiber-optic cables that could ultimately carry huge amounts of data to millions of businesses and homes. Government backing "will encourage the private sector ... to develop these communication networks so they apply ultimately to every school, to every home," said Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee on science, research and technology.
Backers are hopeful that the budget, due to be delivered to Congress on Monday, will allot $150 million to a supercomputing initiative, which would include the network. That would be in addition to about $500 million the government already spends annually on similar research. Funding would span the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other agencies.
The effort is part of what President Bush termed in his State of the Union message his proposal for "record" federal investment in research and development. In addition to high-performance computing, an apparent reference to the network and other supercomputing research, the White House said it will boost research funding for "generic" technologies, like advanced manufacturing and materials, whose fruits can aid numerous industries.
Early on, Bush's top advisers turned a cold shoulder to any government support of specific technology projects, contending that such backing would be an attempt to pick winners and losers in industry, something it said was better left to free enterprise.
Now, observers point to cautiously worded statements by the president's chief science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, who has emerged as the chief proponent of government-industry efforts aimed at helping U.S. firms compete more effectively with large overseas consortia, a practice sometimes termed "industrial policy."
Saying "there was considerable confusion as to where the Bush administration stood," Bromley said in a recent interview that the White House now is willing to foster "generic, pre-competitive" technologies, meaning technologies before they are ready to be turned into products.
"We have been moving more and more in the direction of substantial involvement," Bromley said.
The Commerce Department, for example, intends to make the first grants to companies -- or groups of companies -- soon under its new Advanced Technology Program. Though the department had only $10 million to dispense in 1990, it received proposals for $125 million. Congress tripled the funding in this year's budget.
Similarly, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Bromley said, may help bring companies together to jointly pursue the "critical technologies" that will be listed in an upcoming report. The office also recently published "U.S. Technology Policy," a document that raised eyebrows more for its title than its contents.
"The main significance is that it's an officially sanctioned word," said Kenneth Flamm, a Brookings Institution technology specialist. "As to what's in there, there's no specifics," said Flamm, who favors a federal pool of at least $100 million that would be risked on new technology ventures.
While Flamm thinks major U.S. firms are prodding the Bush administration into exerting a stronger hand in pursuing specific technologies, others in industry remain wary of federal involvement.
"By and large the Silicon Valley guys are still saying, 'Hands off,' " said Burton McMurtry, a California venture capitalist.