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In a striking new policy shift, the Clinton administration's two primary federal technology funding programs have designed new competitions that focus on specific investment areas -- and place information technologies high in the ranks.

On April 7, the Technology Reinvestment Project announced a new round of competition in seven categories. They are likely to include high-density data storage, high-definition displays, rapid software development, environmental sensors, uncooled infra-red sensors, test beds for the National Information Infrastructure and electronic packaging. About $175 million is set aside for the new competition and proposals are due by the end of June.

At press time, final adjustments were being made to the list, which has undergone a difficult winnowing process within the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA.

"We are planning for seven areas -- they heavily emphasize information technologies," said TRP director Lee Buchanan. He said some of the new areas are similar to projects chosen under the last general competition for co-funded work, but that a real effort has been made to spread money into new technical fields.

TRP officials expect about 200 proposals in the new competition and are hoping that the focus areas will narrow the number of unsuccessful proposals. The award money will not be split evenly among the new categories.

"The amount of an award will depend on the quality of the proposals," Buchanan said.

Sometime this summer, the TRP will also announce a general competition that will award an estimated $600 million to private companies and consortia. That process will work the same as last year's competition.

The new focused approach is a major break with the past, and signals a new willingness to identify and fund research and development in specific industries. Critics of industrial policy-making used to call it picking winners and losers, but under the Clinton administration, the practice is welcomed.

The Advanced Technology Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology is tuning its own focused competition list, expected out in mid-April. ATP officials have received 600 suggestions from industry and are currently mulling 25. The short list includes biotechnology, manufacturing technology, software, machine tools and healthcare infotech.

The final dollar amount for the upcoming competition is still unknown. However, once the focus areas are selected, the ATP will make between $20 million and $50 million available for each per year over five years.

"We're looking for areas where there are 40 or 50 companies keenly interested to get involved," said ATP Deputy Director Brian Belanger.

Like the TRP, ATP is still running a general competition, with $25 million in general competition funds announced March 21 and proposals due June 22. For the first time, the program will accept pre-proposals in this round. Weak ideas will be discouraged in an effort to minimize workload and narrow the pool of strong applicants.

One hoped-for advantage to the new focused competitions is an improved ability for federal technology planners to avoid duplicating programs. "We have been making a real effort to coordinate with the TRP," Belanger said.

A new ATP clone at NASA is also considering the focused-competition strategy. The Aerospace Industry Technology Program, or AITP, will award $20 million this year for cooperative, joint-funded research with industry.

"We're still wrestling with the issue of whether or not there will be focus areas," said Program Manager John Mankins. "It is a way to move a program forward a lot more rapidly." The AITP request for proposals is scheduled for this spring.

In related news, on March 29 Secretary of Defense William Perry and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown jointly announced a new action plan to boost the U.S. electronic packaging industries, with a $30 million to $40 million R&D program to be led by ARPA and administered through the TRP. Through cost-sharing, it is hoped the program will generate as much as $80 million in new technology investments.

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