Hailing a "new arena for the spirit of enterprise," President Reagan yesterday announced an 11-point program to help the U.S. beat its foreign competitors to the punch in commercializing new superconductor technologies.
His "Superconductivity Initiative" calls for an increase in research money for the Defense Department, "quick start" grants for commercial applications, a relaxation of antitrust laws to permit joint production ventures, stricter patent laws and the withholding from release under the Freedom of Information Act of "commercially valuable" scientific information developed in government laboratories.
"Science tells us that the breakthroughs in superconductivity bring us to the threshold of a new age," the president, flanked by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and other top officials, told a gathering of more than 1,000 American scientists, engineers, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs at the Washington Hilton.
"It is our task at this conference to herald in that new age with a rush . . . . For the promise of superconductivity to become real, it must bridge the gap from the laboratory to the marketplace, it must make the transition from a scientific phenomenon to an everyday reality, from a specialty item to a commodity," he said.
The discovery last October of high-temperature superconductors, which carry electricity without losing energy to resistance, set off a global competition to develop the commercial potential of the new materials.
Reagan's speech was the latest indication of mounting concern that while the United States is a leader in laboratory breakthroughs, it has repeatedly lost out to others -- notably the Japanese -- in the struggle to convert these advances to practical applications for the marketplace.
Among the potential uses envisioned by scientists are high speed trains that hurtle frictionlessly on cushions of magnetic force; supercomputers several times faster, more powerful and also smaller and cheaper than those used today; lighter, more efficient electric motors of all kinds; and advanced radar, submarine tracking, and ultra-fast processing of electronic signals useful in high-tech weaponry.
In general, turning the recent discoveries into practical technologies "will be a long and difficult process," National Science Foundation chairman Erich Bloch told the group, echoing other speakers.
Dr. Sibley Burnette, while with GA Technologies, sold 53 superconducting magnets used in hospital diagnostic devices. To get to the market, he told the conference yesterday, "We broke every rule in the policy and procedures manual." One necessity, he added, is getting someone to freeze the design in timely fashion, despite the "disappointed engineers" who constantly come up with ways to make it better.
Although Reagan favors self-help by industry, he said the federal government would do all it can to foster private-sector development of superconductor technology and noted that his administration is proposing to double the National Science Foundation budget over the next five years.
His proposal yesterday follows an executive order in April to promote partnership between federal laboratories and the private sector. The plan also includes the creation of what he called a "Wise Man" Advisory Group on Superconductivity, made up of five people from industry and academia, to advise the administration on policy, and it proposes the establishment of a number of "Superconductivity Research Centers" by the Departments of Energy and Commerce, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other institutions.
The first specific and dramatic increase in government research funding, with more expected to follow, went to the Pentagon. The initiative calls for the Defense Department to spend nearly $150 million over the next three years "to ensure use of superconductivity technologies in military systems." All federal agencies combined are currently spending a total of $30 million a year on superconductivity research, according to Phil Keif, an Energy Department spokesman.
Several of Reagan's proposals require congressional approval. A previous effort to weaken FOIA requirements got nowhere.
The two-day conference was sponsored by the White House and the Department of Energy, Reagan said, "so that business and science can cross-fertilize." It has stirred controversy because of a decision engineered by Reagan science adviser William R. Graham Jr. to bar foreign officials and business representatives, even though the meeting was open to both foreign and domestic press.