DOD, professors and the Net

At a social event in the Silicon Valley last spring, I was talking with

a couple and — as much to be ornery as anything else — decided to share

a comment I had read recently in a magazine: "Well, the Internet's great

for buying sweaters, but a revolution? Puh-leaze."

Within a nanosecond, both simultaneously shot back the Silicon Valley

mantra, "You just don't get it!" Moments later, however, the woman, who

teaches part-time at a university, did counter with a more substantive response.

"You know, the Internet is especially amazing for anybody like you or me

who is an academic. I can put my articles on the Web, and with search engines,

all sorts of people learn about them who never would have otherwise. I am

getting comments and reactions I would never have gotten before."

This makes intuitive sense. One important thing the Internet is about

is spreading and sorting information fast-er and more effectively. Academics

are in the information business, so it shouldn't be surprising that academic

research might be an interesting area for valuable Internet applications.

I was recently reminded of this conversation when I learned about an

exciting effort starting at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to make use

of Web-based solutions to locate academic research in science and engineering

that might be rele-vant to military needs.

It turns out that there are a number of dot-com start-up ventures specializing

in providing ways for academics and other researchers to post information

in a central location, in a searchable format, about findings and inventions

researchers believe may have practical applications.

One of those firms, called uventures.com, allows people with ideas to

list for free; the company earns revenue from commissions on business deals

that they broker. Another, yet2.com (get it? "yet to come"), charges a subscription

fee to users for access to its databases. (It is partly financed by DuPont,

which sees yet2.com partly as a vehicle to locate users for inventions developed

within DuPont for which the company itself has no business need, though

others might.)

Tom Kowalczyk of the Product Innovation Division of ONR actually learned

about uventures.com through some off-the-job volunteer work he was doing

via the Internet. He mentioned the site to his boss, and ONR invited uventures.com

and other companies it learned about through market research to make presentations

to the Navy, which the firms have been happy to do.

Kowalczyk is enthusiastic about the potential of such databases to get

information to naval engineers (or contractors) working on developing military

technologies. "This can help us improve the number of technologies available

to be used in naval systems and also how quickly we get access to these

technologies."

This is particularly important since the Defense Department is eager

to further expand its access to technologies developed outside traditional

in-house and defense contractor sources. ONR sees its task as spreading

the word to the engineering community at the major Navy commands about the

availability and usefulness of such Web resources.

There's a lot on the Web, produced by both business and government,

that indeed is not much more exciting than a new way to buy sweaters. The

ONR initiative, on the other hand, points to a way to use the Web for what

it is especially good for, and that has the potential to make a real difference

in how well DOD can perform its mission to protect the country.

—Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993

to 1997, is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's John

F. Kennedy School of Government.

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