High-Tech House That Clout Built
Wheeling Jesuit College Is Now a Center of Technology…
and of Taxpayer Largesse.
DATE: Thursday, June 8, 1995
PUBLICATION: PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
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.
DATELINE: WHEELING, W.Va.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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
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
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
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
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’
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
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
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
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
Father Acker says he hopes the NASA presence on campus will attract
“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
Knowledge Express will spend $300,000 of the grant to buy information from
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
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
“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.
Next in the series…
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