Two House Panels Contemplate the Fate of NIST Technology Programs

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Publication date: 
28 March 1995
Number: 
46

In recent weeks, the Department of Commerce's Undersecretary of
Technology, Mary Good, and the director of NIST, Arati Prabhakar,
have appeared together at two separate hearings to defend the
Administration's civilian technology programs.

NIST, under the direction of Good's Office of Technology Policy,
assists American industry in several ways.  In part, its intramural
labs help set national standards and develop testing and
measurement technologies, while its Advanced Technology Program
(ATP) provides cost-shared grants to industry to encourage
development of high-risk, long-term generic technologies.  The ATP
was conceived and implemented as an experimental program during the
Bush Administration.  President Clinton's budgets have boosted it
towards a national-scale program, with $490.0 million requested for
FY 1996.

While there is general consensus on Capitol Hill over the federal
government's role in basic research and standards-setting,
differences of opinion remain over how far the government should go
in promoting technology development.  The argument has split
primarily along party lines, with many Republicans suggesting
termination of programs such as ATP.

The hearings - by the House Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee on
March 15, and the House Science Technology Subcommittee on March 23
- were part philosophical debate over the programs, and part
pragmatic discussion about the ability to fund them in tight fiscal
times.  The chairs of both hearings had praise for NIST's efforts.
Harold Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the commerce appropriations
subcommittee, warned, though, that "cuts are going to have to hit
programs that are good" as well as bad. 

Good and Prabhakar put up a spirited defense.  When Rogers noted
that U.S. industry has made a "comeback" in global competitiveness,
Good said the comeback was achieved by focusing resources more
narrowly on the short-term; on quality and process improvements.
Noting that the amount American industry spends on long-term
research had dropped in the past decade from about 20 percent to
less than 8 percent, she said industry was "dipping out of the
technology bucket [but] no longer putting anything in." 

Connie Morella (R-MD), whose district contains one of the NIST
facilities, chaired the House technology subcommittee hearing.  She
stated that Congress is "faced with the challenge" of encouraging
technology growth while operating "under very tight budget
constraints."  She asked whether the government could assist
industry by reforming regulations, the tax code, and product
liability laws.  Good responded that "we have to have all of
these," including the NIST programs.

When Ken Calvert (R-CA) criticized the government's ability to
guide technology development, Good and Prabhakar replied in unison
that the programs were "not government-guided."  "The ATP is a
platform that enables industry to make long-term investments,"
Prabhakar explained.  "It does not instruct industry as to where to
make the investments." 

Asked whether the program qualified as "corporate welfare," to
large companies, Prabhakar said many of the participants were small
companies that were not able to compete in the global marketplace
on their own.  She insisted that the programs did not "pick winners
and losers;" industry came forward with the ideas, and private
sector experts helped evaluate the technical and business merit of
the proposals.

A second panel of witnesses at the Morella hearing included several
entrepreneurs who brought success stories of ATP assistance, and
several representatives from conservative think tanks, who
presented theoretical arguments for why the government should not
support ATP.  While the think tank representatives stated that the
government should allow the marketplace and venture capitalists to
fund technology development, the entrepreneurs claimed that
technologies funded by ATP were at too early a stage for venture
capitalists to take a risk on, and too generic for individual
companies to get sufficient return from.  They testified that the
government assistance helped them progress to the point where they
could obtain other funding.

While it is too early to measure full results from the ATP,
Prabhakar said that early evidence indicates "we're on track."
However, that may not be sufficient to protect the program when
budgets are being slashed throughout the government.  Already, cuts
to the FY 1995 ATP budget have been proposed in H.R. 889, a defense
supplemental bill.  That bill will now go to a House-Senate
conference.

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