Quiet end to technology agency lamented

Since the 1980s, the Technology Administration has served as one-stop shopping for tech companies dealing with federal agencies on competitiveness issues.

A provision in the competitiveness legislation that President Bush signed in August deletes the Commerce Department agency charged with bringing U.S. innovation from laboratories to the marketplace.

The law does not specifically outline the closing of the Technology Administration as of Sept. 30, so it passed under the radar of many people who closely follow competitiveness issues. Clues can be found in language transferring some issues from the undersecretary leading TA back to the Commerce secretary, and in a section creating the President's Council on Competitiveness, which was mentioned in the president's budget as a replacement to TA.

Since the 1980s, TA has served as one-stop shopping for tech companies dealing with federal agencies on competitiveness issues. The first assistant secretary was Deborah Wince-Smith, who served from 1989-1993. She helped shape the department into the place to understand emerging trends, implications for the high-tech industry and how to make the most of them.

Wince-Smith, who now leads the Council on Competitiveness, said the issues of competing with Japan when she led the agency exist today, but now the competition is from countries like China or India. "I'm very sorry to see the Technology Administration being phased out," she said. "I think it's a mistake."

Phil Bond, the CEO of the Information Technology Association of America, and Kelly Carnes, CEO of TechVision 21, previously headed TA and lobbied to save it. In a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee in January, they said it does not make sense to cut funding in this area as other countries gain competitive ground.

Commerce Undersecretary Robert Cresanti, who now leads TA, said there was a perception that TA's mission overlapped into other programs. He took the job leading the embattled institution in March 2006 when the agency already been targeted for elimination.

Still, he set to work launching a study on barriers to nanotechnology innovation, encouraging Europe not to regulate radio-frequency identification technology beyond existing privacy laws, advocating businesses to pay more attention to security as a resiliency issue, and serving on the president's identity-theft task force.

Cresanti calls it "an interesting and exciting time" and hopes to publish a joint study with the Patent and Trademark Office before he leaves TA at the end of September. The study will map patent activity geographically in particular fields as an indicator of the next technology boom.

Cresanti knew the TA's days were likely numbered but did not anticipate how quickly the president would sign the legislation closing the office and creating the council.

"They made the best decision they could with the budget constraints," Cresanti said in an interview with Technology Daily. "We got a lot of really great work done. I'm hopeful it will be a legacy for the folks that take over afterward."

He will spend the next few weeks transferring projects to other sections of the Commerce Department and doing all he can to make the council "the best it can be."