House appropriators back tech programs Bush seeks to eliminate

Members of the House Appropriations subcommittee that drafts the budget for the Commerce Department on Thursday let Commerce Secretary Donald Evans know that they are unlikely to approve President Bush's request to eliminate funding for some technology programs in fiscal 2004.

Both Virginia Republican Frank Wolf, chairman of the Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary Appropriations Subcommittee, and ranking Democrat Jose Serrano of New York noted that the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) and Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), two of the programs Bush targeted for elimination in his budget, have wide support in the committee and are likely to receive funding in next year.

"You proposed once again that ATP and MEP should be on the chopping block," Serrano said, "yet you must know that this committee seems to favor these programs and will work hard to put them back in again. ... When you present a budget that makes us then have to pay for it again, you put us in a hole-a hole that doesn't allow us to address some new initiatives."

Bush proposed that ATP funding be curtailed to minimal levels necessary to finish existing projects and that MEP receive $12 million to fund two remaining centers for seven years, after which time they would be on their own. In the past two budget cycles, Bush has requested that those two programs, as well as the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP), be eliminated, but Congress has supplied funding anyway.

Evans testified that while both ATP and MEP are successful programs, Bush has made other areas related to homeland and economic security higher priorities, so he had to cut money elsewhere. "These are worthwhile programs," Evans said. "But this is about the president's budget and his priorities, and the administration's position is that this is a difficult period and we are managing a very tight budget and these [programs] just didn't make the list."

Evans also noted in testimony to the subcommittee that the department is working to eliminate the practice of using fees collected by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for unrelated federal programs. Many in the technology community have said the practice has stymied PTO's ability to review patent applications, as well as to make quality decisions about what products and ideas should receive patents.

Further, Evans outlined a request for $10.3 million to be allocated to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to both develop standards for biometrics systems used to identify visitors to the United States and to test radiation standards. Some $7 million would be used to complete a NIST study on the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

When asked why NIST is researching biometrics given that the Homeland Security Department's research and development division also is expected to conduct such research, Evans said NIST's team of scientists "are set and ready to go" while Homeland Security is still developing. In future budget years, the NIST research on biometrics may move to that department, he said.