One topic of great interest to many lawmakers these days is the question of how the U.S. can maintain its competitiveness in manufacturing, as other countries rapidly improve their manufacturing technologies, their S&T capacity, and the skills of their workforce. Before leaving for its summer recess, the House on July 9 passed a bill designed to support American manufacturing. The "Manufacturing Technology Competitiveness Act" (H.R. 3598), introduced by Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), would authorize substantial increases in the years FY 2005-2008 for NIST's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program and for NIST's in-house laboratories. The bill would also authorize a new coordinating body for federal manufacturing efforts, and fellowship and grant programs to assist manufacturers and strengthen manufacturing technologies in the U.S. It does not mention the Advanced Technology Program, one of NIST's two extramural programs, which the Administration proposed terminating and the House concurred to in its FY 2005 Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill (see FYI #93).
"Our action today is a victory for America's manufacturing sector, especially the small and medium-sized manufacturers in Michigan and around the country who are constantly striving to remain competitive in the global marketplace," said Ehlers of the bill's passage. House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) commented that the bill would help ensure that "manufacturers across America...have easy access to information about the latest technologies and organizational ideas that can help them stay ahead of their foreign competitors. Simply put, this bill means jobs here at home."
Specifically, the bill would authorize $110.0 million in FY 2005 for the MEP, which is a national network of not-for-profit centers, supported by a mix of federal, state, local and private funds, that provide technical and business assistance to small and medium-sized manufacturers in every state. If appropriated, this amount would be a 185.0 percent increase over FY 2004 MEP funding of $38.6 million, and a 180.6 percent increase over the President's FY 2005 request of $39.2 million. After several years of budgets in the range of $106.0 million, MEP funding was cut more than 60 percent in FY 2004, in line with the original plan to phase out federal funding for centers more than six years old. However, many Members of Congress support continued federal funding, praising the centers' value to manufacturers in their states, and warning that loss of federal funds could force a number of centers to close. The Ehlers bill would authorize steadily increasing appropriations levels for the MEP, reaching a high of $125.0 million in FY 2008.
The bill would also authorize an FY 2005 appropriation of $425.7 million for Scientific and Technical Research and Services (STRS), which are NIST's core laboratory programs. This would be a 28.6 percent increase over FY 2004 funding of $331.0 million, and a 2.0 percent increase over the FY 2005 request of $417.5 million. The STRS authorization levels would rise to a high of $492.8 million in FY 2008. The bill also authorizes "such sums as may be necessary" for NIST facility construction and maintenance.
In addition to providing guidance on funding levels, the bill would seek to strengthen U.S. manufacturing by authorizing several new programs and entities. It would direct the President to establish an Interagency Committee to plan and coordinate federal manufacturing R&D efforts, and an Advisory Committee to provide input to the Interagency Committee on goals, priorities, and emerging problems and opportunities for U.S. manufacturers.
The bill would require the NIST Director to establish a pilot program to provide competitive grants to partnerships among manufacturing firms, educational and research institutions, State agencies, and nonprofit organizations "to encourage the development of innovative, multidisciplinary manufacturing technologies."
Among other provisions, it would also authorize establishment of an awards program at the postdoctoral and senior researcher levels for fellowships at NIST to pursue research activities in manufacturing sciences, and it would establish a competitive grant program among participants in the MEP program "to develop projects to solve new or emerging manufacturing problems." Additionally, it would require public audits of all MEP centers, and notification to centers of performance deficiencies that might result in probation or eventual closure.
Authorization bills, of course, only offer guidance for appropriators, who actually control the money. The House already approved an FY 2005 appropriations level of $106.0 million for MEP in its Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill, passed several days before the authorization bill.
Both the Manufacturing Technology Competitiveness Act and the FY 2005 Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill now await action from the relevant committees in the Senate.