Industry witnesses at a recent hearing of the House Environment, Technology
and Standards Subcommittee extolled the importance of the National Institute
of Standards and Technology, with one calling it "a key leader
in our nation's innovation engine." Despite high praise for NIST
on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, a significant cut in this year's
budget could lead to 100 employees being separated from its Maryland
and Colorado facilities by the end of September.
"The goal of the hearing is to further inform members of Congress,
especially the appropriators and their staffs, about NIST and the critical
need to fund its fiscal year 2005 budget request as submitted by the
president," subcommittee chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) said at
the April 28 hearing of his subcommittee. Ehlers has long been a champion
of NIST, and the hearing was designed to highlight the agency's importance
to the nation's S&T enterprise. Referring to one of NIST's historic
roles in setting fire equipment standards following a disastrous fire
in Baltimore, Ehlers remarked that "perhaps we need another barn
burning fire to awaken the pubic as to the importance of NIST today."
NIST is beset by several large problems. Its science and technology
programs are little known or understood by most people, including many
working on Capitol Hill. The budget for NIST's Scientific & Technical
Research & Services is $336 million, an amount dwarfed by the $3,500
million DOE Office of Science budget and the $5,578 million NSF budget.
NIST's Advanced Technology Program (ATP) has also been a long-running
target of critics who view it as corporate welfare, and the Administration
is trying, once again, to eliminate the program. ATP has been saved
in large measure by Senator Ernest F. Hollings (D-SC), who helped to
establish it. Hollings is retiring next January. Ranking Minority Member
Mark Udall (D-CO) also identified another problem that the Science Committee
could correct. "We need to take our responsibility as an authorizing
committee seriously and move authorizing legislation that sets out spending
limits and priorities for NIST," he said.
One of the consequences of these problems is a significant budget shortfall
at the agency. When the final catchall appropriations bill for the current
year was enacted in January (almost four months late), the NIST laboratory
budget found itself on the short end of the accounting stick, with a
cut of almost 6% from the previous year. While Congress and the Bush
Administration have tried to lessen the impact of this shortfall, it
has not resulted in enough savings. After totaling the number of employees
who agreed to an early out or buyout, NIST will have no resort but to
lay off employees.
The Bush Administration is trying to undo some of this harm by its
request of $417 million for the FY 2005 laboratory budget, an increase
of $86 million or 26%. This increase is, however, far from a certainty.
The appropriations process is bogged-down, and how the eventual funding
bills will be passed is anyone's guess. When Congress finds that it
cannot pass appropriations bills, it turns to a mechanism that continues
current funding levels, a holding pattern that would be especially harmful
The five industry representatives who testified at Ehlers' hearings
were vocal in their support of the agency. They all made the case for
NIST funding by discussing the importance of its science labs (specifically
citing the Physics Laboratory), standards setting, the Advanced Technology
Program, the Manufacturing Extension Program, and building and fire
One of the witnesses at this hearing, Deborah Grubbe of DuPont, concluded
her testimony with words that distilled the sentiments of the witnesses,
chairman Ehlers, and Ranking Minority Member Udall . She asked, "So
the question becomes, where do we want to place ourselves as a nation?
Do we want to be the lead dog on the sled or do we want to be somewhere
else in line?"