House questions NIST budget priorities

The fiscal 2009 budget proposal for the National Institute of Standards and Technology would provide a 22 percent boost for core research programs.

'It puts us back on the doubling path' for the agency's primary job, acting Director James Turner told the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation Tuesday. 'The president's request focuses on high-impact research.'

The subcommittee held a hearing on NIST's funding priorities, and some congressmen were unhappy that the growth would come at the expense of programs that provide millions of dollars for the commercialization of new technology to small manufacturing and high-tech companies.

'The budget request this year largely ignores any of Congress' input,' said Chairman Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.)

That input, incorporated in last year's America Competes Act, included a plan to double funding for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which gives small manufacturers help with modernizing facilities. 'I am disappointed to see that the administration proposes to eliminate this program,' Wu said. Also on the chopping block is the Technology Innovation Program, which provides cost-shared grants to small high-tech companies. That would be zeroed out of next year's budget.

The 2009 budget proposal would cut total NIST funding by 16 percent from 2008 levels, from its current $755.8 million to $638 million. The bulk of the request, $535 million, would go to the Scientific and Technical Research and Services programs. Core research programs would increase at the expense of construction, which would be reduced by 38 percent, from $160.5 million to $99 million, and the virtual elimination of Industrial Technology Services, including the MEP and TIP programs.

The budget request includes initiatives in three appropriations. Scientific and Technical Research Services programs would receive $535 million for:
  • Nanotechnology health and safety research
  • Measurements and standards
  • Comprehensive National Cyber Security Initiative
  • Optical communications
  • NIST Center for Neutron Research improvements
  • Quantum information science
  • Nanotechnology manufacturing
  • Climate change science program
  • Innovations in measurement science
  • National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program
  • Disaster-resilient structures
  • Hydrogen fuel
  • Biometrics
  • Supply chain integration.

Construction of research facilities would receive $99 million for:
  • Expansion of joint research facilities with the University of Colorado
  • Completing a state-of-the-art lab at NIST's Boulder, Colo., campus
  • Conducting major repairs.

The $4 million requested for Industrial Technology Services is enough for what Turner called an orderly end to federal funding for MEP. No funds are requested for TIP, which received $65 million in fiscal 2008.

Mary Good, founding dean of the University of Arkansas' George W. Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology, told the subcommittee that MEP and TIP benefited NIST as much as the companies that receive the funding. One of the agency's missions is to investigate the health, environmental and economic impacts of new technologies, such as nano- and biotech, Good said.

'MEP is the vehicle for getting NIST to understand market impact,' she said. 'I would argue that MEP is as important for NIST as it is for the manufacturers.' She said the same thing applied to TIP. 'The omission of these two programs is a real detriment to NIST.'

Peter Fiske, vice president for research and development at PAX Scientific, said that the federal government is the major source of venture funding for R&D that is too risky for commercial organizations to support. He said TIP and its predecessor, the defunct Advanced Technology Program, were efficient programs, well-aligned with the needs of small technology businesses. Michael Coast, president of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, a MEP partner, said the program was critical to helping small manufacturers succeed in trying economic conditions. Cutting federal funds could essentially shut the programs down because state funding is provided on a matching basis.

Turner acknowledged the value of the Industrial Technology Services.

'We all agree that MEP and TIP are good programs,' he said. 'But for us it came down to a matter of priorities and limited resources. For us the priority was the core program.'

Wu responded that Congress had already established NIST's priorities. 'Those priorities were set in statute in the enabling legislation last year,' he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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