Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez testified before the Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee on March 6. While the programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology received some notice in this hearing, other programs of the Commerce Department received considerably greater, and more critical, attention.
Subcommittee chair Barbara Mikulski's (D-MD) opening statement provides the best indication of her position on the FY 2009 NIST request. She began, "I have two goals for this hearing. First, I want to know how the budget meets the Department of Commerce's mission and whether it follows through on agreed upon policies, such as America COMPETES. Second, I want to focus on what I call 'red zone' issues – chronic problems at the Commerce Department." In this second category she cited the 2010 Census, operations at the Patent and Trademark Office, and NOAA's satellite program. She continued by citing the Administration's request to cut $86 million from the budget of NIST's Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and then said: "This budget also falls short in funding innovation. At the National Institute of Standards and Technology, we applaud that the laboratory programs' request is $535 million, $95 million above the fiscal year 2008 omnibus level. Unfortunately, that increase is offset by the termination of NIST's grants program, which America COMPETES authorizes at a combined $253 million."
Ranking Member Richard Shelby's (R-AL) remarks were of a similar nature. He said he shares many of the same goals as Mikulski, and commented that this would be "another tight fiscal year." He was pleased that the Administration was continuing to support its American Competitiveness Initiative "to keep us at the forefront." Importantly, he said he would "do all that we can" to work with Mikulski to fund science and technology programs at their highest levels. Shelby supports the Technology Innovation Program (formerly the Advanced Technology Program), which the Administration again proposes to eliminate.
In his written testimony, Secretary Gutierrez described NIST's request as one that "will advance measurement science, standards, and technology. The request includes increases of $71 million for research initiatives at NIST Laboratories and National Research Facilities, and $62 million for Construction and Major Renovations as part of the President's 10-year American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). This will put us back on track to double the funding for NIST basic research in the core physical sciences and engineering by 2016, to ensure continued U.S. leadership in this area, a major goal of ACI." The Secretary continued, "The request includes $4 million to transition Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership centers to a self-supporting basis, and does not include funding for the Technology Innovation Program (successor to the Advanced Technology Program.)"
The question-and-answer part of this fairly short hearing was devoted to the "red issues" that Mikulski described in her opening statement. There was uniform concern about new technology for the upcoming 2010 census, with Mikulski fearing that there "could be a collapse" if handheld census-taker units fail. NOAA's satellite programs also received critical attention at this hearing, as well as the Patent Office's one million case backlog. Other questions were asked about a proposed $170 million cut to the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration, and allegations of unfair European airplane subsidies.
Regarding FY 2008 funding, Mikulski commented that the subcommittee will "get only one crack" at the still evolving supplemental appropriations bill, most likely in mid-April. In this connection, she mentioned problems that the subcommittee may address with state and local law enforcement funding.
Update on Expansion of NIST Neutron Research Center:
An FYI issued in late December 2007 discussed projected impacts of the FY 2008 NIST budget on its Neutron Research Center. The recent NIST ThreeYear Programmatic Plan states the following:
"As part of the ACI [American Competitiveness Initiative], NIST received $79.1 million of its requested $93.9 million for two new facilities initiatives and for operational maintenance, major repairs and safety of the NIST campuses. (This does not include congressionally directed awards of $51.3 million and a $30.1 million competitive construction grants program not requested by the President.) These two facilities initiatives are multi-year projects already under way: expansion of a neutron research center (NCNR) in Gaithersburg and laboratories in Boulder -- improvements that are critical in order for NIST to continue to conduct cutting-edge research for U.S. science and industry. The NCNR project is projected to provide world-class facilities to an additional 500 researchers each year.
"To compensate for the shortfall, NIST has adjusted its overall facilities plans in order to proceed with the two major projects."