NIST's advanced technology grants could cease

As budget-cutters work over the fiscal 2005 request, the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program could get the ax.

The president's proposed budget for fiscal 2005 eliminated support for the program, which is overseen by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Implemented in 1990, the Advanced Technology Program, at www.atp.nist.gov, has funded long-term R&D deemed too risky for private investment but nonetheless promising. As of September 2003, the program had issued 709 awards worth $2.1 billion to select projects proposed by companies and academia.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act earmarked around $179.2 million for ATP this fiscal year, of which $61 million will go to new grants.

The cuts come at a time when some agencies are worrying about the survival of long-term R&D.
Last summer, the House Science Committee held a hearing on U.S. supercomputing efforts, in light of Japan's 2-year-old Earth Simulator, which is capable of 41 trillion floating-point operations per second and faster than any U.S. computer. The Energy Department's director of science, Raymond Orbach, testified that the United States needs advanced supercomputing for science and defense.

Funding questions

But Christopher John, vice president of government programs at Cray Inc. of Seattle, said such technology would not come out of industry because the market is too small to attract the needed investment.

Cray is one of three companies that won a $146 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contract last summer to design a new kind of high-performance computing architecture.

ATP has more than its share of critics who have called it corporate welfare. The White House's summary of the Commerce Department budget stated that other NIST offices more effectively support research. It also noted that 'large shares of ATP funding have gone to major corporations that do not need subsidies' and that 'ATP-funded projects often have been similar to those carried out by firms not receiving such subsidies.'

Edward Hudgins, an analyst who has written about the program for the Cato Institute of Washington, said that if the work is truly important, 'presumably some business, a consortium or a private research organization would fund it.'

Connie Partoyan, a senior advisor to the undersecretary of Commerce for technology, said elimination of ATP indicates a redirection of science and technology funding toward homeland defense and national security.

'The national priorities have been shifted,' Partoyan said.

Of the first 50 projects ATP funded, about half were in electronics, computer hardware, communications and IT, according to the program's Web site. Other areas funded were advanced materials and chemistry, biotechnology and manufacturing.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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