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Can defense research revive U.S. industry?

Probably not, but with better technology transfer it can at least contribute to commercial progress.

Even before the Cold War ended, public pressure was growing for the defense research and development (R&D) community to produce technologies with commercial applications. In part, these demands reflected the large investment that the United States has made in defense R&D ($39 billion funded by the Department of Defense |DOD~ in 1992, with an additional $3 billion spent by the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons research). These demands have intensified now that the Soviet threat has declined; commercial applications for defense R&D are commonly assumed to be part of the "peace dividend." Surely, the argument goes, the same minds that produced stealth technology and smart bombs can now help the United States win the trade wars in the international marketplace.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton and George Bush both supported the idea of using defense research to improve U.S. competitiveness.

Yet experience suggests that converting defense R&D to civilian products and services may be more difficult than many believe. The defense community has been notoriously ineffective and inefficient in transferring technology to the private sector. And the evidence indicates that this performance has much less to do with the nature of defense technology than with the deep-seated organizational and cultural obstacles within the military that discourage and impede technology transfer.

An equally daunting impediment is the body of rules, regulations, standards, and specifications that govern the Defense Department's acquisition process. These policies make it virtually impossible for military products to be cost-competitive in commercial markets. They also prevent DOD from taking advantage of many commercial developments that would improve U.S. military capabilities.

The net result is that the commercial payoffs from defense R&D will never meet expectations unless we adopt policies to change the culture of defense research and facilitate the transfer of military technology to the commercial market. Defense spending may be falling, but the military will still consume a substantial share of U.S. R&D funding. The competitiveness of U.S. industry will depend greatly on whether we can transfer this know-how to the private sector. Defense officials will also find greater support for their R&D budgets if they can demonstrate significant commercial applications.

Past victories

Some defense technology has always found its way into civilian life. Certain innovations even provided the basis for entire industries. Canned food, for example, was originally used by Napoleon's armies, and more recently computers, jet engines, communications satellites, and jeeps were developed for the military.

Until recently, such spinoffs were considered fortuitous bonuses. It was understood that war--or in the case of the Soviet Union, conflict just short of war--often accelerated the rate at which technology evolved and that private industry could benefit. Yet there was little deliberate effort to introduce defense technology into the commercial arena.

Beginning in the late 1970s, some legislators began to argue that the government should promote, or at least facilitate, technology transfer. They were concerned that government-funded research was not producing enough return and that our global competitors--Japan and Germany in particular--would outpace U.S. companies in developing new products because such a large proportion of U.S. research spending was devoted to military work.
Table 1
Government-funded R&D: Where the money goes
(Percent, 1989)
 U.S. Japan Germany France U.K.
Defense 65.5% 9.0 18.0 41.9 55.2
Health 12.9 4.8 5.2 3.7 6.2
Civil space 7.3 11.1 8.5 8.7 3.8
Energy 3.9 39.2 9.5 4.0 4.0
of research 3.8 13.8 20.7 17.5 6.8
forestry, fishing 1.9 6.5 3.1 4.8 5.5
development 0.2 8.1 19.0 15.0 10.3
Other 4.5 7.6 14.9 4.5 9.2
Source: National Science Board Committee on Industrial Support
for R&D, 1992, based on data provided by OECD, NSF, and
Japanese national sources.

As shown in Table 1, nearly two-thirds of government-funded R&D in the United States was spent on military programs in 1989 (the most recent year for which complete data are available). In contrast, countries such as Japan and Germany devoted a much greater percentage of their government-funded R&D to industrial development, energy, and other fields that are more likely to yield commercial products.

This imbalance in government-funded R&D has become even more worrisome since growth in private R&D spending in the United States has stagnated. With the government accounting for a growing share and defense accounting for the lion's share of government-funded R&D, the United States will be at a significant disadvantage if it fails to commercialize military technology effectively.

The challenge is to find ways to derive more commercial benefit from DOD's work. Prior to 1980, directors of federal laboratories were reluctant to spend much time on technology transfer. Part of the problem was that there were no legal mechanisms to facilitate joint projects between government-funded research institutions and commercial partners. U.S. officials have since tried to solve this problem through a series of statutes and policy directives that addressed two major issues, one having to do with policy, the other with legal concerns.

The first issue was whether a government-funded research facility should be permitted to participate in a profitmaking joint venture operation. Traditionally, such cooperation was viewed as an unfair subsidy in which tax dollars were used to benefit an individual company.

The second issue concerned property rights. Most government contracts stipulated that the government retained patent and licensing rights to any technology or products produced under a government-funded program. This principle served the public interest, because it gave the government maximum flexibility when bargaining for similar products under future contracts. For example, when the U.S. Navy contracted with General Dynamics to develop the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile, the Navy retained rights to the design, engineering drawings, software, and technical data. It subsequently was able to open competitive bidding for the opportunity to build the second block of missiles, because it was able to distribute the blueprints to interested contractors. Had General Dynamics owned the technical information, no other company would have been able to make a competitive bid.

These policies reflected an implicit belief that any research funded by the government belonged to the public, even when a private company carried out much of the work. Unfortunately, they also effectively prevented commercial applications of government-funded R&D. Not only was the basic technology itself in the public domain (and thus freely available to competitors), a company could not even claim sole rights to the work needed to bring a technology to market if it were carried out with the cooperation of a government agency. The result was that although the U.S. government spent large amounts of money on R&D, little of it found its way into commercial products that benefited consumers or boosted competitiveness.

Birth of a notion

Change began when the first technology-transfer law, sponsored by Senator Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and Senator Robert Dole (R-Kan.), was passed in 1980. Bayh was spurred into action when Purdue University, located in his home state, complained that it had been denied patent rights to technology that it had developed under a Department of Energy grant. The Bayh-Dole Act permitted nonprofit organizations and small businesses to retain such rights. At about the same time, Congress also passed the Stevenson-Wydler Act of 1980, which established technology transfer as part of official U.S. policy and directed government labs to establish Offices of Research and Technology Applications to serve as a link between the laboratory and the private sector.

This initial step encouraged universities to undertake research programs that had potential commercial payoffs. As a result, certain fields grew rapidly, most notably biotechnology and computer software. Having discovered a successful formula for converting federal R&D into commercial products, Congress expanded the Bayh-Dole Act in 1984 so that it applied to university-operated government labs such as Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, both run by the University of California.

Meanwhile, a parallel effort was also underway in the executive branch. As part of his zeal to privatize government activities, President Ronald Reagan in February 1983 issued an executive order instructing government agencies to adopt aggressive technology-transfer policies like those endorsed in the Bayh-Dole Act. However, the statutes under which agencies could carry out the order were ambiguous. The various laws chartering each government R&D organization resulted in a variety of rules and requirements for cooperative work. Congress responded by creating a uniform legal basis on which all government-funded labs and research institutions could enter into joint R&D agreements with nongovernment partners. This became the Technology Transfer Act of 1986, passed as an amendment to the Stevenson-Wydler Act.

The Technology Transfer Act provided the necessary uniform statutory basis for a contractual link between the government labs and businesses. This device, known as a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), permits joint ventures between government labs and corporations, universities, and local governments, in which both partners retain intellectual property rights.

The final step in this evolution occurred with amendments to the Technology Transfer Act offered in 1989 by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). These extend the act to government-owned facilities operated by private companies, such as Sandia National Laboratory, a major center in Albuquerque that has been operated by AT&T for the Department of Energy.

CRADAs permit government labs to fund and carry out additional work needed to convert R&D to commercial use. The government typically receives a royalty for its contribution, and the private partner usually retains exclusive licensing rights, making it the only party that can market resulting products or services commercially.

Technology transfer--the DOD record

Signing a CRADA indicates that an outside partner has been able to identify a government-developed technology that has commercial potential, has reached an agreement with the responsible government agency, and has put up real money to pay for the process of bringing the technology to market. The number of CRADAs an agency enters into is a rough indicator, therefore, of the potential commercial applications of the agency's R&D, the ease or difficulty of traversing the agency's procedures for developing a cooperative agreement, and the degree to which the agency has promoted technology transfer.

Unfortunately, among all government departments and agencies with significant R&D programs, DOD has been the least effective. As shown in Table 2, DOD has fewer CRADAs to show for each dollar of R&D spent than any other agency. The number of DOD CRADAs is roughly equal to the number of CRADAs implemented by the Department of Health TABULAR DATA OMITTED and Human Services or the Department of Agriculture, even though DOD's R&D funding is much, much greater. The Defense Department lags significantly behind the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), even though both organizations carry out largely similar research, consisting primarily of work in aerospace, computers, and propulsion technologies.

Why the difference? One reason is that the Technology Transfer Act and its amendments establish CRADA procedures only for government laboratories and research institutions. Most technology development funded by DOD is not carried out at these places. Of the $39 billion spent by DOD on R&D in 1992, only $9.8 billion was spent by organizations eligible to enter into CRADAs (labs, universities, and federally funded research centers such as the Rand Corporation). The remainder was spent by other DOD organizations, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the weapons development command of each service, and by private corporations, which are not considered eligible research institutions under the Technology Transfer Act. In contrast, Health and Human Services, which had an R&D budget of $9.8 billion in 1992, spent $8.3 billion through the National Institutes of Health, which are considered government labs eligible to enter into CRADAs.

Some creative steps by DOD officials might get around this obstacle. For example, an ineligible DOD organization could transfer technology that it has developed to an eligible lab specifically for the purpose of commercializing it. But so far DOD has not shown this initiative.

A second reason why DOD has been less successful in establishing CRADAs is that a good amount of defense research is carried out under "black" or "special access required" programs. Not only is access to the data in these programs tightly controlled, but sometimes the very existence of the program is not made public. Such classification severely limits the opportunities for would-be entrepreneurs to learn about the commercial potential of technologies developed in this work.

Yet a third reason--and possibly the most important--why DOD lags behind is simply that DOD officials do not consider technology transfer to be a high priority. DOD officials responsible for R&D view themselves mainly as a link in a chain leading to the acquisition of weapons systems. As an issue of concern, technology transfer ranks well down their list. And why not? These officials are rewarded and penalized almost entirely on the basis of their ability to deliver new technology to be used in weapons, and of their vigilance in ensuring that defense procurement is fair and legal. Defense officials have been fired for mismanaging programs (as in the case of the A-12 aircraft) and have even gone to jail for violating procurement regulations (as in the Navy's "Ill Wind" scandal). It is unlikely, though, that anyone in DOD has ever been penalized for not producing enough technology-transfer agreements.

This attitude toward technology transfer is reflected throughout the defense R&D establishment. For example, most DOD lawyers have little experience in drafting joint ventures. Rather, their training and careers are focused on monitoring procurement contracts, identifying potential conflicts of interests, and ensuring that federal acquisition regulations are followed to the letter. Indeed, the traditional buyer-seller relationship between the defense R&D community and industry requires DOD officials to deal with private corporations at arm's length. It even promotes a certain amount of suspicion. Technology transfer, on the other hand, requires quite the opposite--cooperation and good faith in the expectation of mutual profit.

A model for reform

These attitudes might be expected of a military organization, whose natural tendency is to build a better bomb, not a better toaster. Yet it is interesting to compare the performance of DOD with that of the Department of Energy (DOE), which has a similar national security mission and its own huge bureaucracy, and whose nuclear weapons research may be even more esoteric and secretive than most work at DOD.

The Energy Department illustrates what can occur when department heads assign a high priority to technology transfer. In 1991, DOE produced CRADAs at a rate 25 percent higher than that of DOD. And DOE is improving markedly; as of September 1992, it had already entered into 215 new CRADAs. This would yield an R&D-budget-to-CRADA ratio of approximately 33:1, a performance on par with that of NASA. (DOD has not reported partial-year figures.)

The dramatically better performance by DOE labs and departments over their DOD counterparts is a direct result of their approach to technology transfer. DOE has established several important characteristics and mechanisms to improve the commercial yield of its R&D, including the following:

Leadership at the top. Secretary of Energy James Watkins issued an explicit directive (Secretary Notice 30-91) making technology transfer a top DOE priority. It established several measures designed to encourage and facilitate technology transfer. Watkins has also made numerous public statements supporting the commercialization of research and cooperation between his agency and industry. No such leadership has been demonstrated by a high-ranking DOD official.

An advocate who has stature. DOE has a single person of reasonably high rank--the director of the Office of Technology Utilization--who is responsible for monitoring and facilitating technology transfer. She has been able to lobby for funds within DOE to facilitate CRADAs and serves as an ombudsman if a CRADA is stalled in the bureaucracy's approval process.

DOD has not appointed a technology-transfer official of similar rank for the agency as a whole or within any of the three services. Instead, responsibility for technology transfer has been assigned to lower-ranking officials, usually at the laboratories themselves. These officials lack the bureaucratic clout to facilitate CRADAs.

This situation is further aggravated because, in some portions of the military, lab directors do not even have the authority to approve CRADAs. Instead, they must submit CRADAs to their superiors for review. This increases the time required to complete an agreement, and in the private sector, such delays often mean lost opportunities because investors cannot wait. These additional levels of review also reduce the flexibility of lab directors to search for partners and engineer deals--in other words, to act as entrepreneurs.

Incentive structures. DOE headquarters uses the potential for technology transfer as a criterion for evaluating the budgets proposed by DOE labs and departments. Success in technology transfer is also a criterion for evaluating lab and department directors. DOD does not include these criteria in its evaluations.

A dedicated budget for administering technology transfer. To participate in a CRADA, a DOE lab can use program funds (that is, money for technology developed during its routine R&D program) and funds specifically set aside for supporting CRADA-related work, which are allocated by the director of the Office of Technology Utilization on a competitive basis within DOE. In addition, DOE sets aside funds to pay the salaries of staff responsible for technology transfer and to finance promotional efforts for potential CRADAs. DOD has no budget for technology transfer and is also reluctant to support CRADA activities with program funds.

Expanding participation

The steps taken by DOE, if implemented by the Defense Department, would go a long way toward improving technology transfer. But they address only part of the picture.

CRADAs pertain only to R&D carried out at government laboratories and government-funded nonprofit institutions. As noted, these organizations account for a relatively small part of defense R&D. Indeed, fully $25 billion--nearly two-thirds--of the DOD R&D budget is spent by commercial firms, and industry's share of the R&D pie is likely to increase in the future. Currently, all three services are developing plans under Congress's Federal Advisory Commission on Laboratory Consolidation to reduce the number and size of defense labs.

Some legislators have said that the defense labs should be preserved and redirected to develop civilian technology; it remains to be proven that this would be the most effective use of federal R&D dollars. Other alternatives, such as providing grants to private labs and corporations or reinstituting the R&D tax credit, could be more effective, insofar as they do not require a standing army of government employees, can be redirected more quickly, and are likely to be more responsive to market forces.

The government already provides some indirect incentives for defense contractors. For example, contractors that assemble defense systems at government-owned, contractor-operated plants are often allowed to use these facilities to build similar systems for the commercial market and are often given access to other government facilities on a pay-as-you-go basis. This enables the contractor to avoid many startup and overhead costs. In a typical arrangement, McDonnell Douglas Corporation, which builds Delta launch vehicles at a government-owned facility in Huntington Beach, California, and operates them for the military from an Air Force launch pad at Cape Canaveral, is allowed to use the same facilities to build and operate commercial launchers.

Similarly, DOD has begun to provide "anchor tenancy" agreements. In these agreements, DOD buys the first unit of a new product from a company, establishing the product's viability. The company is then free to sell the product commercially. This provides a way for DOD's inevitably large demand for goods and services to "pull" new technology to the market. An early example of a tenancy agreement was DARPA's purchase of the first launches of the Pegasus and Taurus launch vehicles from Orbital Sciences Corporation. The company has since sold Pegasus launches to two foreign space agencies.

Unfortunately, these initiatives have not been entirely successful. One reason is that the White House during the Bush administration seemed unable to develop a consistent policy for such incentives. For example, even though the Bush administration was officially committed to technology transfer under the National Technology Initiative and promoted anchor tenancy under policy directives such as the Commercial Space Policy Guidelines, some administration officials continued to oppose such incentives because they considered them to be a subsidy. For example, various government insiders have speculated that President Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, pushed for the removal of Craig Fields as director of DARPA because he felt that Fields was pushing DARPA to collaborate too closely with industry. Whatever actually motivated Fields's dismissal, the message that reached the defense bureaucracy, which already had little incentive to promote technology transfer, was that helping industry was not going to be rewarded.

Congress has also been an obstacle. In particular, the House and Senate appropriations committees have repeatedly opposed anchor tenancy and other incentives because these mechanisms frequently commit the government to purchase goods and services over a multiyear period. This circumvents the annual appropriations process, which, in the eyes of committee members, reduces their power.

Integration now

Even if the government does create true incentives for private companies to commercialize defense technology, there remains a great problem: Defense technology is often poorly suited for the competitive environment.

Several large, independent studies, such as the one done by the Packard Commission in 1986, have noted that DOD's acquisition and procurement process often results in military systems that cost too much and are inferior to their civilian counterparts. These studies, which have produced remarkably similar results over more than a decade, conclude that defense acquisition procedures, standards, and specifications add costs that could be avoided without compromising quality and impede the introduction of newer, more effective, and more efficient technologies. As several analysts have noted, this is why companies such as Motorola, Boeing, and TRW, which are engaged in both DOD and commercial business, rigorously separate their defense and civilian production lines. Using commercial procedures in the government business could result in products that did not meet DOD requirements; but at the same time, "contaminating" the civilian part of the company with DOD-mandated procedures would likely result in a product unsuited for competition in the commercial market.

Yet the DOD procurement process has an even more pernicious impact on R&D. It creates "technological apartheid." Scientists and engineers rarely transfer from the defense division of a company to a commercial division, or vice-versa, because the practices and culture legislated by the procurement process are so different. As a result, it is difficult not just to transfer innovations from the military production line to the commercial market line, it is hard even to transfer technology from one side of a company to the other.

By gearing defense R&D to products that meet DOD specifications and standards, we virtually guarantee that the resulting technology will be ill-suited for the commercial market. For example, when a company conducts research for a commercial widget, a key criterion is whether the technologies being considered will result in a cost-effective product. As R&D proceeds, the company manages its program in part on the basis of which path will improve the cost-effectiveness of the end product. In contrast, there is rarely a requirement in the defense acquisition process for a system to be "designed to cost." If such a requirement existed, the likely impact would be a ripple effect throughout the R&D process, with each decision influencing costs and benefits. The end result would be a more competitive, commercially viable product.

Making the best of it

The payoff from defense technology may never be as great as once hoped. But despite the end of the Cold War and the imminent shrinking of military budgets, the United States will continue to devote a major portion of its overall R&D investment to defense. It still makes sense, therefore, to look for ways to take advantage of it to benefit the national economy.

Moreover, there is a critical parallel issue: Will the defense community be able to benefit from the innovation and production capability of the civilian sector? The same barriers that prevent defense ideas from flowing out also impede civilian innovations from flowing in. This is increasingly important, because today's commercial technologies are often as advanced if not more so than those of the military. Better technology transfer will enable the military to lower costs and improve performance of its hardware through greater use of commercial technology.

A comprehensive strategy to maximize the commercial payoff from defense R&D and to facilitate two-way technology transfer would include several key measures:

Appoint a new assistant secretary of defense for technology policy. To give commercialization the right priority, our new president should nominate an assistant secretary of defense responsible for facilitating technology transfer from DOD to the private sector. The secretary would also see to it that DOD uses commercial systems wherever possible, thus using DOD's demand for goods and services as a lever to encourage the development of commercially oriented technologies. The secretary of defense should also give the assistant secretary, or another high-ranking DOD official, the authority to investigate deliberations over CRADA proposals and to act as an ombudsman should CRADA approvals be slow in coming.

Exhibit leadership. Government officials down the line take their cues from their superiors. No secretary of defense in the Reagan or Bush administrations took a high-profile position to encourage technology transfer. DOD will not implement an effective technology-transfer policy until top DOD officials make clear that they think this is important.

DOD should also set aside funds to pay the salaries and support the activities of the new assistant secretary and other individuals who would be dedicated to technology transfer. Funds should also be allocated to support the implementation of these people's efforts. The Energy and Commerce Departments, for example, have a separate budget that allows technology-transfer staff members to present their agencies' work across the country in meetings with industry to brainstorm, trade ideas, and explore opportunities in a high-tech version of the bazaar or market square.

Expand eligibility of organizations for technology transfer. Congress should expand the Technology Transfer Act to include the non-laboratory defense R&D organizations, such as the Air Force's Space System Division of the Navy's Electronic Warfare Command.

Establish incentives for individuals and organizations. Officials in DOD must have personal incentives to give technology transfer a high priority. Success in promoting technology transfer should be made part of the formal job evaluation of senior people at DOD labs, departments, and agencies. Rewards should also be established for R&D managers who bring in many CRADAs that provide substantial royalties to the government. DOD should also take advantage of the provisions of the Technology Transfer Act that permit a portion of royalties earned by the government under a CRADA to be paid to the individual researcher responsible for developing and promoting a technology.

Furthermore, Congress should consider the commercialization success of whole organizations before making budget allocations. The same criteria could be extended to secret R&D programs, with appropriate measures to ensure security.

Reform the defense acquisition process. The new secretary of defense could begin by implementing the recommendations of the DOD Advisory Panel on Streamlining and Codifying Acquisition Laws, which recently completed its congressionally mandated study with the support of the Defense Systems Management College. These reforms would greatly reduce the specifications and requirements that needlessly increase the cost of defense systems and discourage the development of commercially viable technologies. Meanwhile, Congress should legislate changes in the selection criteria for DOD acquisition decisions so that they favor systems that have potential commercial applications wherever possible.

Rationalize the classification system. The sheer amount of defense research that potentially can be commercialized is severely limited by the wanton classification of R&D. Older documents should be declassified in bulk, and the classification of new work should be drastically restricted (see "The Perils of Government Secrecy," Issues, Summer 1992, for ways in which to accomplish this).

At a minimum, the new assistant secretary of defense for technology transfer should receive clearance to review classified work to identify R&D that could be made available for possible commercialization without compromising security. Also, just as opportunities for CRADAs are advertised in the Commerce Daily Bulletin, opportunities for CRADAs related to classified work could be advertised through the appropriate classified channels.

Increase congressional support. The House and Senate committees on science and technology, which oversee DOE policy, have been strong advocates of technology transfer. However, they have limited influence over the defense R&D community. The House and Senate committees on the armed services, which oversee DOD policy, need to fill this gap and ensure that defense labs are responsive to the Technology Transfer Act and White House directives promoting technology transfer. The two committees should also consider the commercial applications of programs when making their own decisions in the annual authorization of the DOD budget. Finally, the authorization committees must reach a compromise with the appropriating committees so that it is possible to promote anchor tenancy and other commercialization incentives without totally forfeiting congressional control over spending.

Such measures would help ensure that defense R&D boosts the productivity of U.S. industries and their ability to compete in the global market. Without such measures, defense research, which could provide a tremendous opportunity to energize the U.S. economy, will remain a dead weight.

Recommended reading

Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, Technology and Economic Performance: Organizing the Executive Branch for a Stronger National Technology Base. New York, September 1991.

Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer, Technology Innovation: Chapter 63, United States Code Annotated, Title 15, Commerce and Trade, Sections 3701-3715. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1991.

U.S. Department of Commerce, The Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986: The First Two Years. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, July 1989.

U.S. General Accounting Office, Diffusing Innovations: Implementing the Technology Transfer Act of 1986. Washington, D.C., May 1991.

Debra Van Opstal, Integrating Commercial and Military Technologies for National Strength: An Agenda for Change. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 1991.

Tim Wirth et al., Task Force on Defense Spending, the Economy, and the Nation's Security--Final Report. Washington, D.C.: The Defense Budget Project and the Henry L. Stimson Center, August 1992.

Bruce D. Berkowitz, who lives in Washington, D.C., is the author of several books on national security policy and is adjunct professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
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Title Annotation:Issues in Focus; defense research and development
Author:Berkowitz, Bruce D.
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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