High-Tech House That Clout Built

Wheeling Jesuit College Is Now a Center of Technology... and of Taxpayer Largesse.

DATE: Thursday, June 8, 1995
BYLINE: By Gilbert M. Gaul and Susan Q. Stranahan, INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
Contributing to this article was Frank Donohue
of The Inquirer's News Research Library.


In the early morning sunshine, the mirrored glass walls of the new Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center shimmer, momentarily distracting westbound drivers on Interstate 70 as they descend the hill into this aging industrial town on the Ohio River.

Standing like a sentinel above modest houses and neat yards, the $13 million structure dominates the hillside entrance to its host, Wheeling Jesuit

If there is a monument to the federal government's adulation of technology transfer - the idea that technology created by government scientists can now be used to revive American industries, create jobs and help the United States catch up with global competitors - this is it.

That such a facility is located at an obscure liberal-arts college in Wheeling is a testament to the determination of its president, who saw federal aid to his school increase threefold in a year.

That such a facility is situated in West Virginia is a testament to the political clout of its namesake, Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who once boasted he would deliver $1 billion in public-works to his home state before he was through.

That such a facility was erected at all is a testament to the trade-offs that shape virtually every policy decision made in Washington.

High-flown rhetoric about global competitiveness and economic security aside, technology-transfer programs have become yet another way to do what Washington has always done best - to dole out the pork.

Perhaps for that reason, few in Congress have scrutinized how technology tax dollars are being spent, or held technology programs to any kind of performance standards.

Ask National Technology Transfer Center officials how the center is performing and they'll provide a thick packet of pie charts, graphs and data. They call it metrics.

"Metrics are very important to us," said Lee W. Rivers, the center's executive director.

Yet ask how many of these requests have resulted in new technologies or jobs, or even in cooperative research projects with the national laboratories, and there are no numbers.

That hasn't slowed the growth of funding by Congress, though.

Once it was public works and defense. Today, it's technology. And lots of people are eager for a piece of the action.

Getting it has been made simpler by the rapid buildup of these programs and the prevalent belief that spending money on technology - virtually any technology - is a worthwhile investment.

As a result, federal engineers in Kansas City who used to build weapons may soon be figuring out how to prevent fish from suffocating in Arkansas fish farms; an Oregon medical school has received more than $96 million from the Department of Energy to buy computers and build a neurological research center; and aerial views of the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center are available on the Internet.

As technology programs have grown, so has the interest of many members of Congress. That interest frequently manifests itself as a congressional ''earmark," a specific project inserted into an appropriations bill by a member, usually to benefit constituents.

Often the projects have little relevance to the stated mission of the funding agency. Many have little or no scientific merit, conjured up not by technical people but by politicians.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Defense Department technology effort, is a good example.

Last year, 70 percent of its $2.7 billion budget was earmarked, leaving him ''limited flexibility" to fund the types of projects the agency is mandated to underwrite, executive director Gary L. Denman told Congress.

Earmarks, described by their sponsors as "technology initiatives," also are larded through the budgets of NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Commerce, Energy and other departments.

"The government and the taxpayer are the real losers as a result of this practice," wrote Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D., Calif.), who served as chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee until January, when Republicans took control of the House.

"Politics as usual, in its most self-serving form, will destroy a collective effort to ensure that our research agenda meets priority needs and invests our scarce resources wisely," he wrote in 1993.

Brown's interest wasn't entirely apolitical. Earmarks come through appropriations committees of the House and Senate. Brown, like most committee chairmen, would prefer to retain control over which projects are funded - without siphoning off funds to other members' pet projects.

Long before Bill Clinton began extolling the value of technology-transfer initiatives, Robert Byrd had recognized the benefits. Like Clinton, he saw the issue as jobs. West Virginia jobs.

In 1988, Byrd stepped down from the post of Senate majority leader to take another powerful position: chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. All federal budgets pass through that chairman's hands.

It was in that capacity a short time later that Byrd made what might seem to be a casual request to National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials: consider a technology program for West Virginia, which had no NASA facilities.

Thus was born the National Technology Transfer Center.

Consider the National Technology Transfer Center as Directory Assistance for the $73 billion federal research network. Its operators are standing by to field phone calls from U.S. businesses and help them, as the center describes it, "turn government research results into practical, commercially relevant technology."

Dial 1-800-678-6882 and you could find yourself eventually talking to an astrophysicist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., an advanced reactor materials engineer at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory outside of Idaho Falls, or a robotics-equipment programmer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Or you could be connected to any of thousands of federal scientists or engineers, whose areas of expertise are as diverse as the work of the national research-and-development establishment. Calls also may be directed to university researchers, companies, even foreign sources of information.

The service is free to users. It costs taxpayers $9.8 million a year.

That is a small amount to pay to open the government's vast R&D vault, says Rivers, the center's executive director.

"The problem is, there are 700 federal laboratories and there is good stuff imbedded all over the place," he says. "What we wanted to do is start
from the other end. We wanted to start from the businessman's needs."

Although the National Technology Transfer Center promotes itself as the most comprehensive storehouse of technical information, it is competing with six regional technology centers - also funded by NASA.

Those centers, with budgets of about $1 million each, offer computerized technology databases, as well as business-development services, for which fees are charged.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Technology Transfer Center in Pittsburgh, for example, sells its database on a computer disk for $495.

Its database "may have a few more specialized laboratories" than NTTC's, said John G. Hennon, technology-transfer director. Otherwise, he added, "it's pretty similar."

The centers aggressively market their services. Consider this promotional blurb from NASA's Far-West Regional Technology Transfer Center in Los Angeles:

"Turn government research results into practical, commercially relevant technological tools for your company. Our staff will assist you in translating the language of research into the speech of the marketplace."

Since the National Technology Transfer Center opened temporary quarters in Wheeling in mid-1992, more than 8,000 inquiries have been received, according to NTTC data.

Initially, response from the various national laboratories to unsolicited phone inquiries from the tech transfer center was mixed. Many scientists in the labs were uncomfortable dealing with the public.

Some of the national labs were in the process of creating their own technology-assistance offices and saw the NTTC as a rival. Few had even established policies about letting their scientists serve as phone consultants.

That is slowly changing.

"The labs are aware of the need to do this," said Gerrill L. Griffith, a spokesman for both the tech transfer center and Wheeling Jesuit College. ''They see lean times coming."

Some lab scientists have proven adept at customer relations, according to Mike Goehring, technology manager at the center.

"And some are like the Maytag repairman, waiting for someone to call," he added.

Forty-five percent of the calls to the National Technology Transfer Center involve manufacturing questions; 50 percent are from service-sector firms. Almost two-thirds of the calls come from companies with fewer than 100 employees.

The inquiries may be as specific as a request made by John Fox, director of engineering for Penn Ventilator Co. in Northeast Philadelphia. Fox's company needed assistance in computational fluid dynamics to ensure the reliability of a new high-performance fan propeller.

The tech transfer center put Fox in touch with engineers at Lehigh University, who, in turn, recommended a consultant to solve the problem. The project is nearing completion.

"They did very well," Fox said.

Or it may be as simple as a call made by George Grotsinger of Warren-Knight Instrument Co. of Philadelphia. Warren-Knight manufactures electronic surveying equipment and sighting devices for military weapons. Its business has fallen off in recent years.

The purpose of the call was to remind the tech transfer center of the small, family-owned company's existence, Grotsinger said.

"We're looking to stay in the game. If somebody was to show up (at the center) and say, 'I need a special optical instrument made,' we'd be there," he explained.

Some calls fall in between. For example, those from John O'Brien, who has contacted the center twice in the last year.

In one instance, O'Brien, of Center City Philadelphia, wanted studies on the health effects of long-term incarceration on prisoners of war. In the other, he was seeking names of companies that had supplied products to the old Camden Ship Yard.

O'Brien, a lawyer, was seeking the information for use in fighting lawsuits against his clients. If the center hadn't existed, he said, he'd have had to do the research himself.

He likes NTTC. "I recommend them to other lawyers," he said. "It's a great research tool. It saves a lot of time."

The most frequently asked question at the National Technology Transfer Center is: "Why Wheeling?"

The answer, from center officials and administrators of Wheeling Jesuit
College, uniformly is: Why not?

Taxpayer dollars go a lot farther in Wheeling than they do in Washington, they say. Wheeling is far removed from the "Beltway Bandits" who live well off federal programs in the nation's capital, they say.

"This is not pork," said the Rev. Joseph A. Burke, the jovial chancellor at Wheeling Jesuit. Father Burke routinely is dispatched by the college's president and Burke's longtime friend, the Rev. Thomas S. Acker, to address the question. "It's not a road to nowhere or a bridge over nothing."

The link between the National Technology Transfer Center and Wheeling Jesuit College can be traced to the early 1980s, when Father Acker, a Stanford University-educated biologist, returned to the United States from stints as a Fulbright Scholar and Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal and Sudan.

His work in the Third World made the opportunity to locate in West Virginia seem a "good fit," he said. The state has the second lowest per-capita income in the United States and the lowest percentage of college graduates in the country, he explained.

In 1982, Father Acker, a Jesuit, became president of Wheeling College, which at the time was in peril of going broke.

"I was saddled with an $800,000 deficit," he said. Enrollment was 987 students and the incoming class was 30 percent smaller than expected.

"It was a difficult time," he recalled.

Over the next few years, Father Acker struggled to lure more students - and revenue - to the college.

Convinced that the presence of a Reserve Officers Training Corps on campus might improve enrollment and finances, Father Acker proposed the idea to the faculty. It was rejected by the faculty three times in rapid succession, but Father Acker proceeded anyway, only to be stonewalled by the Army.

He turned to Robert Byrd, asking the West Virginia senator to arrange a meeting for him at the Pentagon.

That was not the way things are done, an aide to Byrd informed Father Acker, who obviously enjoys recounting this tale years later.

When Byrd requests a meeting with the Pentagon, the Pentagon comes to Capitol Hill, the aide told him.

An Army colonel duly appeared in Byrd's office to hear Father Acker make his case, and Byrd admonished the officer to seriously consider the request. He did; the school got its ROTC program.

After that, recounted Father Acker, "I started hanging around Washington."

He explored the possibility of establishing a software-development center at the college (Byrd got him a $200,000 grant) and stayed in touch with the senator's office.

Byrd had plenty of irons in the fire for his home state, including a technology center. In 1989, he earmarked $4 million in the NASA budget for the project.

Father Acker was on the case, having gotten "a tip," as he describes it,
from a Byrd aide about the senator's plan.

The priest mounted a campaign to persuade Byrd and NASA to locate the technology-transfer center at his school, by this time known as Wheeling Jesuit College.

With undisguised glee, Father Acker tells of outmaneuvering larger schools to win the project for his campus. As for NASA's reaction to spending millions at Wheeling Jesuit, Father Acker says, "I don't know how enthusiastic they were."

In 1991, Byrd set aside $22.5 million for the center. That prompted a stormy reaction from Brown, the California Democrat who is an outspoken critic of earmarks.

"I do not believe anyone in Congress or in NASA knows what this will be used for," fumed Brown in a speech on the House floor.

Brown noted that the Byrd earmark wasn't the only questionable project tacked onto NASA's budget. There were funds for an environmental-research program in Saginaw, Mich., which already had received $41 million in NASA
dollars, and $20 million earmarked for the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research in Baltimore.

"I stress marine research, not space research," said a sarcastic Brown.

From 1991 through 1995, a total of $49 million was budgeted for the tech transfer center. Another $49 million has been promised over the next five years.

Father Acker's gratitude is boundless. "What Sen. Byrd gave us is something I never could have dreamed of: to build the college of the 21st century."

That's exactly what Byrd has done, in the name of technology transfer.

The center was one of two multimillion-dollar, NASA-funded projects the senator delivered to Wheeling Jesuit. The second is called the Classroom of the Future, housed in an ultra-modern building a short distance from the technology transfer center.

This year, Wheeling Jesuit signed a five-year, $10 million contract with NASA to operate the facility, which contains a Challenger Learning Center, a life-size re-creation of a Challenger spacecraft and mission control room, state-of-the-art sound and video studios, classrooms and administrators' offices.

According to Byrd, the federally funded Classroom of the Future is intended ''to stimulate the interest of West Virginia students in the study of math and science."

The arrival of high technology at Wheeling Jesuit has had a noticeable impact on the school, which has an enrollment of 1,229 full-time students and 65 faculty.

Revenue to the college grew from $16.7 million in 1992 to $24.2 million in 1993, according to the school.

In the last three years, $40 million worth of new construction has been underway on campus - half of that financed by the federal government, according to Father Burke.

In addition to the two NASA-funded buildings, federal dollars also were used to computerize the library and install a campuswide fiber-optic system.

When the faculty questioned how the projects fit into the school's liberal- arts mission, "I told them, they bring dollars and excitement to the campus," Father Acker said.

They certainly bring dollars. Although funded by NASA, the 75 NTTC employees work for Wheeling Jesuit, with top officials earning much more than
college staff.

Rivers, the NTTC director, is paid $120,000. His top two deputies get $100,000 each; a third is paid $85,000.

By contrast, the dean is paid $60,000, federal tax returns show.

For some, the arrival of the NASA programs meant a sizable pay increase. Carole T. Coleman, vice president for financial administration, received a $10,000 raise.

Father Acker says he hopes the NASA presence on campus will attract students.

"We certainly weren't flying with a full planeload," he says of enrollment.

The school has added a bachelor's degree program in innovation and technology and a master's program in commercialization and technology transfer. Eighteen students are enrolled in the undergraduate program, which is in its first year.

What if the Republican majority in Congress pulls the plug?

Father Acker has a fall-back position. If necessary, he says, the technology transfer center could become self-supporting. "Our products and services are given away practically gratis," he said. "I have urged them to consider charging fees. That is a decision we and NASA will make."

Among the proposals is one to charge a research fee of $200 for work now performed free by NTTC.

Rivers said the fee question is a source of conflict. "If the clock starts running on a small-businessman in Oklahoma when he picks up the phone to reach out for federal assistance, just as the clock starts running when he talks to his lawyer, he may be very unlikely to call," said Rivers.

To ensure that the service remains free, "we're looking very seriously at how we can generate revenue from other products," he said.

Charging fees and expanding into new markets would put the National Technology Transfer Center into direct competition with the handful of private technology brokers who already are providing such services.

Among them is Knowledge Express Data Systems of Berwyn, which regards the National Technology Transfer Center as its largest competitor, according to its president Arnold "Buz" Brown.

Knowledge Express sells a research and technology database to 2,000 clients. Last year, it reported $1.8 million in sales.

That wasn't the only revenue flowing into the company. U.S. taxpayers, already underwriting National Technology Transfer Center for $9.8 million a year for the next five years, also are kicking in $4 million to Knowledge Express.

Knowledge Express will spend $300,000 of the grant to buy information from NTTC.

NTTC keeps good records on most measures of its progress. As of the end of 1994, it had handled 8,081 technical requests, almost two-thirds from companies with fewer than 100 employees. Businesses that were heavy users of federal troubleshooters are industrial machinery, electronics, instrument and equipment makers, which together accounted for more than half the calls.

Officials can even tell you the exact date they finally received a call
from North Dakota - Jan. 10, 1994 - which was the last of the 50 states to produce an inquiry to the center's 800 information number.

What they can't tell you is how many, if any, new technologies, or jobs, or even cooperative projects between private corporations and national labs, have been generated.

No one knows.

The center has just begun to collect that information as part of an effort among all federal technology agencies to improve their performance measures, which critics say are vague and unreliable.

Joseph P. Allen, director of marketing and economic development at NTTC, emphasizes that his agency serves only as an intermediary, linking those looking for answers with those who may have them.

"We're a dating service," says Allen. "We don't guarantee you'll get married or even asked out on a second date. All we can guarantee is to hook you up with someone who fits the profile you filled out.

"We should only be judged on the things we can control. And that is contacts with industry," says Allen, who joined NTTC in 1992 and is paid $100,000. "What industry does with the information is their business."

Before moving to Wheeling, Allen was a Senate staffer who helped write some of the major technology-transfer legislation.

Rivers, the NTTC director, concedes that measuring performance is a difficult - but important - task.

He's particularly critical of how the number of cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) that an agency had signed with industry became the yardstick - rather than the technology those agreements produced.

"I'm a firm supporter of CRADAs, but what happened with CRADAs is that
because they were easy to count, the whole system was driven to counting them," he says. "We've got to develop outcome measurements, not activities measurements."

"I don't think there is a single metric," Rivers says. "It's a combination of jobs, investment, cost reduction of a product, etc."

Father Acker has his own definition of the success of technology transfer.

"From a phone call, eventually a successful product evolved that has some use to society," he says. "Is it producing jobs, is it lending to the advancement of society? I want product!"

Father Acker said he has promised Sen. Byrd to remain at the helm of Wheeling Jesuit - and the National Technology Transfer Center - "as long as he is a senator from West Virginia."

"That's important to him when he gives projects of this magnitude. If the program fails, he looks foolish and he knows that leadership is important."

© Copyright 1996 Philadelphia Newspapers Incorporated.
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