Most Recent Action     Current Congress     Background 

Proposed Elimination of the National Technical Information Service (11-10-99)

Most Recent Action
Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) chaired a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space to discuss the current Department of Commerce proposal to eliminate the National Technical Information Service (NTIS).  On August 12, Commerce Secretary William Daley announced a plan to close NTIS by the end of 2000, transferring much of its long-term dissemination role to the Library of Congress and forcing federal agencies to maintain their own catalogue of publications.  At the Senate hearing, witnesses from the Government Printing Office, US Department of Commerce, US National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, National Federation of Federal Employees, and members of Congress discussed the impact of the Secretary's decision on employees and agencies involved in this restructuring.

The National Technical Information Service (NTIS) was established by Congress in 1950.  Initially, its primary mission was to translate and catalogue scientific and engineering documents gathered at the end of World War II.  Over the years, NTIS became the government's clearing house for the collection and dissemination of technical, scientific, and engineering information to the American public.  NTIS's collection consists of over three million publications and reports from federally sponsored research projects, federal statistics, and technical reports developed by the private sector.  From its inception until 1987, NTIS received an annual appropriation from the government to pay for its services.

In the late 1980s, Congress mandated that the organization become self-sustaining through revenues earned by the sales of publications and services.  To meet this mandate, NTIS has expanded its core mission to incorporate revenue-generating services, such as FedWorld, "an on-line information network system that allows its customers to gain electronic access to a wide variety of government information" that includes the Department of Defense and the IRS information networks.  These expanded responsibilities often are self-supporting but do not produce enough revenue to keep the primary clearing-house mission from running a deficit.

On August 12, Secretary of Commerce William Daley announced, "After extensive review and analysis it was determined that the core function of the NTIS, providing government information for a fee, is no longer needed in this day of advanced electronic technology."  A Department of Commerce news release goes on to explain that NTIS sales in the past few years have dramatically decreased due to the increased usage of the Internet to obtain information. In fact, according to Secretary Daley, NTIS has operated in a deficit since FY1993.  It seems clear to the administration that NTIS can no longer remain self-sustaining because of the emerging electronic commerce of the Internet, and a simple restructuring of the program will not be sufficient.  Secretary Daley expressed that "this was a tough decision to make, but sound management dictates that we cut our losses and recognize the technologically advanced environment we live in.  This is the right thing to do and the best thing for the American taxpayer."

A Department of Commerce Fact Sheet outlines in greater detail the proposed elimination process and redistribution of roles to other federal agencies. In the past, federal agencies sent copies of reports directly to NTIS, which catalogued and made them available to the public.  Under the restructuring announced in August, federal agencies would be responsible for maintaining reports on their websites for "long periods of time," the actual extent of which is not defined.   The plan would also transfer the role of archiving science, engineering, and technological reports to the Library of Congress, which would be responsible to "ensure that Government Agencies provide technical and business reports to the public for free via the Internet."  Federal agencies would be responsible for submitting a digital version of their reports to the Library of Congress for archiving, a responsibility similar to the current system with NTIS.  The third section of the plan would work to diminish the effect eliminating NTIS would have on its current staff a by placing employees in new offices within the department and/or retraining employees for other federal jobs.

Secretary Daley's announcement has been coolly received by members of Congress, the United States National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, federal employees unions, and other agency administrators, especially at the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office.  The elimination of NTIS has been the topic of two hearings on the Hill since the announcement in August.

Current Congress
Several Members of Congress are frustrated with the manner in which the Department of Commerce has dealt with the proposed elimination of NTIS.  On September 14, the House Science Subcommittee on Technology held a hearing to review the proposal.  Witnesses at the hearing included: Robert Mallett, Deputy Secretary of Commerce; Michael DiMario, Public Printer at the Government Printing Office (GPO); Ken Allen, Chairman of the NTIS Advisory Board; Caroline Long, Assistant University Librarian for Collection Services at George Washington University; and Bonnie Carroll, President of Information International Associates, Inc..  Chairwoman Constance Morella (R-MD) opened the hearing by briefly commenting on the recent action of the Secretary of Commerce and posing several questions on the effects of the current proposal on other federal agencies and NTIS users.  She also questioned whether moving the responsibilities of NTIS to other agencies would eliminate the cost of maintaining these databases or merely shift costs to other programs.  The complete written testimony of the witnesses and prepared statements of the committee members are available at the Science Committee's website.

NTIS Advisory Board Chair Ken Allen noted that the advisory board was not involved in the decision making process for the proposed changes.  He went on to say that current regulations require federal agencies to submit a version of their publications to NTIS, but that "the reality was that much of the information was not made available" to NTIS.  Secretary Daley's proposal would mandate that each agency make their reports available on-line for an extended period, after which the Library of Congress would be responsible for maintaining the information for the public.  Mr. Allen expressed concern that without NTIS this information would be lost, and that many of these reports are in the NTIS collection because "NTIS aggressively sought out and collected such documents from federal agencies."  He concluded by saying that NTIS is needed even more in our current advanced-technological society because of its ability to preserve scientific and technological information to the public regardless of the "market demand for such information."

Bonnie Carroll summarized her comments by saying, "The key functions of public access which include cross-discipline, cross-agency access, dissemination and archiving, as well as the proactive identification and collection of agency [research and development] results, continue to be necessary in whatever paradigm emerges for the future federal [scientific and technical information] system."  Several other witnesses agreed with the sentiment that NTIS should not be eliminated, but that there needs to be a thorough study of what is currently provided and what needs of NTIS users are not being met in the current system.

A Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space hearing continued the discussion from the previous House hearing.  The full text of testimony from the October 21st hearing is available at the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation website.  Witnesses included: Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA); Rep. James Moran (D-VA): Robert Mallett, Deputy Secretary of Commerce; Michael DiMario, Public Printer, Government Printing Office; Joan Challinor, Commissioner, United States National Commission on Libraries and Information Science; and Bill Clark, Executive Committee Member, National Federation of Federal Employees.  Testimony from Senator Charles Robb (D-VA) and James Billington of the Library of Congress was submitted into the record.  Comments at the second hearing echoed the points from the previous meeting.  Overall, concerned parties believe that the announced plan to eliminate NTIS has not received the full review that is needed.  There is a good chance that there will be several more hearings on Secretary Daley's proposal once Congress returns from the winter recess.  Congressional action is necessary for any type of restructuring and Members of Congress are likely to review the issues surrounding NTIS very carefully before any legislation is introduced.

Sources: American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News, hearing testimony, Department of Commerce website, and House Committee on Science Committee website.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs Program.
Posted November 10, 1999

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