Congressional hearings have revealed considerable disagreement with the Bush Administration's request to reduce or eliminate FY 2008 funding for two National Institute of Standards and Technology programs that assist in the development of new technologies. Despite the recommendation that the Advanced Technology Program be terminated in FY 2008, NIST announced a competition last week for $60 million in FY 2007 awards for "technically challenging, high-risk research that has the potential for broad national benefit."
The Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation of the House Science and Technology Committee began the FY 2008 budget cycle with a hearing on NIST's programs in mid-February. As is true for other S&T agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2007/038.html) and NASA, Subcommittee Chairman David Wu (D-OR) announced his intention to bring a NIST authorization bill to the House floor this year. There has not been a NIST authorization bill for all of the agency's programs since 1992.
There was bipartisan opposition to the Administration's request to reduce funding for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership to $46.3 million from its current budget of $104.7 million (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2007/017.html.) The new request, echoing previous budget requests, would eliminate funding for the Advanced Technology Program. While expressing support for the Administration's request to increase NIST's laboratory budget (it being one of the three components of the American Competitiveness Initiative), Wu commented: "I am concerned that the Bush Administration continues to follow a strategy of paying for increases in the lab programs by cutting funding for the MEP and eliminating the ATP. Both of these programs are successful public/private partnerships which have contributed to American innovation and competitiveness. I hope that we can break this cycle where every year the Administration proposes either eliminating or cutting these two programs and then Congress restores the funding." The subcommittee's Ranking Republican, Phil Gingrey (GA) singled out his opposition to the proposed MEP funding reduction, calling it "a critical program that is worthy of taxpayer dollars." NIST Director William Jeffrey acknowledged that ATP is effectively managed, saying that the continuation of the program "basically gets down to a philosophical issue"of whether providing seed-stage funding for the development of new technologies is an appropriate role for the federal government. The proposed reduction in MEP funding might be offset by increasing fees for participating companies and through the reduction of operating costs, he said. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), the full committee's Ranking Republican, discussed a new report outlining more than 700 technical barriers to innovation that will inform strategic planning for the NIST laboratories (see http://usms.nist.gov/.) Wu concluded this hearing by stating, "we all strongly support the NIST labs. What we want is a balance between the laboratory enterprise and the other very important things that NIST does."
Subsequent appropriations hearings also examined the question of program balance. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science stated, "NIST's research is world class -- with three Nobel Prize winners! The NIST budget request emphasizes basic research such as nanotechnology, quantum information sciences and neutron research. But the overall request for NIST is $36 million below the fiscal year 2007 level. So there is concern that NIST`s applied research programs have been shortchanged. Specifically, the Advanced Technology Program is eliminated. ATP develops high risk technologies. The Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership is cut in half. MEP makes U.S. manufacturers more efficient. We must have a balanced scientific research portfolio that meets the needs of industry."
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was asked about program balance in his appearance before the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee. In response to a question from Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA), Gutierrez explained: "Again, it really goes back to our priorities. . . . The American Competitiveness Initiative is really driving our priorities. And in the Commerce Department, one of our big priorities is to put more money behind basic research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The Advanced Technology Program, while it's a very good program, was intended to invest behind high-risk, potentially high-reward technologies. That is essentially what the private sector venture capital funds do. And it was a matter of, Where do we put the money? Do we put it behind basic research where we know that the private sector usually does not invest because they don't have the time to wait for 10 or 15 years or they don't have the competitive environment, whereas venture capital -- that usually does get done by the private sector."
While there continues to be disagreement between the Bush Administration and some Members of Congress about the Advanced Technology Program, an announcement was made last week that approximately $60 million in FY 2007 funding will be awarded on a cost-sharing basis through the program. Details on this peer-reviewed competition are available at www.atp.nist.gov/. The last new ATP awards were made in 2004.
The House appropriations subcommittee intends to complete its markup of the FY 2008 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill by July 4.