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Senators lambaste official over Bush's proposed tech funding

Irritated senators assailed a Bush administration official on Tuesday, criticizing President Bush's decision to cut funding for some technology programs in fiscal 2003 and arguing that the federal investment in such programs is paying dividends for the nation.

The Advanced Technology Program (ATP), for example, "has been tried and true," Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, D-S.C., said in questioning the administration's proposed reforms of that program and also the decision to eliminate funding for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).

Sam Bodman, the Commerce Department deputy secretary taking the heat at the hearing, acknowledged that the proposed funding for some programs is "disappointing." But he said the emphasis on homeland security requires some cuts, and the fiscal 2003 budget represents "our best judgment balancing security needs" with science and tech funding.

Members of the committee would have none of his arguments, though, and defended the programs targeted for funding cuts. "Ironically, these MEP centers help fulfill one of the top priorities stated in the administration's budget: 'Revitalize the economy and create jobs,' " Hollings said.

The Bush administration has argued that Congress intended to phase out funding for MEP after six years, but Arizonan John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, noted that "the sunset [on the program] was repealed in 1998."

Hollings expressed displeasure that the Commerce Department has yet to begin accepting applications for 2002 ATP awards, noting that there are a couple of ways the awards can be made: The department does it, or Congress can sue.

"You and I are good friends; we are not going to sue each other," Hollings said. But it is April, "and none of the $60 million [for the ATP grants] has been spent."

Bodman noted that notice of the competition for the grants will be published in Wednesday's Federal Register, and he assured Hollings that the Commerce Department intends to make $25 million in awards by June and allocate another $10 million by the end of the year.

Hollings also criticized an administration proposal to charge a 5 percent royalty fee for government-funded research that pays dividends. "On the one hand," Hollings said, "let's award technology and then make sure we penalize it if it succeeds."

Last year, General Electric won an ATP grant, causing McCain to inquire why "one of the largest corporations needs government money to pursue anything." He did not give Bodman a chance to respond, saying, "You have no grounds with which to respond."

Bodman noted that the administration is pursuing ATP changes that would limit the participation of big corporations to being a partner in a joint venture, which he said would address the concerns McCain raised.

McCain also asked why the administration wants to eliminate funding for the Teacher Science and Technology Enhancement Program, which helps math and science teachers understand the relationship between technology and commerce. Bodman said he was unaware of the program and did not realize its elimination had been proposed.

"I can understand that," McCain said. "They are not big donors."