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 to NIST.
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 research.
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?"