Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., (left) and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., want to "abolish" the agency.

Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., (left) and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., want to "abolish" the agency. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Is Commerce’s Technical Information Service a Dinosaur in the Internet Age?

Senators reintroduce plan to kill the department’s purveyor of technical documents.

Time was when small business people and academics had to send away an order form or travel to offices in Alexandria, Va., to obtain specialized agency documents kept in print from the National Technical Information Service.

But the advent of instantaneous downloading via the Web has rendered the mission of that Commerce Department unit problematic—or even obsolete, in the view of two senators.

On Thursday, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., reintroduced a bill from the previous Congress that would “abolish” NTIS, calling it an “outdated agency that has lost more than $1 million in taxpayer money per year over 10 years trying to sell government reports that are mostly available online for free.”

In a joint statement linked to larger efforts to curb duplication in government, the senators criticized NTIS’s “money-losing profit model” for selling reports to other agencies and the public, “most of which are otherwise available for free and easy to find using a simple Internet search.”

They cited a Government Accountability Office 2013 report on duplication that analyzed documents added to NTIS’s collection of 2.5 million reports from 1995 to 2000, of which 74 percent were publicly available elsewhere and only 8 percent were sold. Created in 1950, the agency has lost on average at least $1.3 million per year over the last 11 years, according to the senators.

Asked for a response, an NTIS spokeswoman told Government Executive by email that the agency “is an entirely self-supporting federal agency that provides a unique set of essential services not available from Google and other private search engines on the Internet.  Our mission is to promote innovation and economic growth by collecting in a central database and then disseminating scientific, technical, and engineering research information to the public and industry,” she said, citing another GAO finding that “in some subject areas up to 45 percent of our collection is exclusively available from NTIS.”

She noted that many of NTIS’s holdings, totals for which she set at 3 million in 350 subjects, are findable on Google and other engines only because NTIS has standardized their formats, the result being that NTIS complements private search engines rather than duplicates them. "Also, even if an original federal source for a publication removes it from the Internet, NTIS ensures that the document remains available,” she said. “We specifically support the knowledgeable science and technology researcher looking to quickly and comprehensively search federal S&T resources.”