Free reports not easy on NTIS
- By William Matthews
- Jul 05, 2000
Need a copy of the 1996 U.S. Catfish Health and Production Practices report?
You can download it from the Agriculture Department's World Wide Web site,
Statistics on hate crimes are easily available from the FBI's Web site.
And auto crash test results are a few clicks away at the Transportation
The Internet has made finding government research reports simple and
free. And that's great for people who need government information. But it's
not so great for a 55-year-old federal agency that made a modest profit
selling government reports to the public.
The National Technical Information Service, a branch of the Commerce
Department, was set up in 1945 to be the "permanent repository and principal
disseminator of scientific, technical and engineering information" generated
by government agencies. For nearly six decades, the agency has dutifully
collected other agencies' research reports, archived them and provided copies
to anyone willing to pay the asking price, plus handling.
Since 1988, the agency has been required to earn at least enough money
to pay for itself. At first that wasn't hard: NTIS generated a $5.8 million
net profit from 1988 to 1994. But as more and more agencies have put their
research reports on the Internet, free for all to download, NTIS earnings
From 1995 to 1999, NTIS showed a $4.2 million loss, and sales of research
reports dropped 28 percent and the number of reports sent to NTIS for distribution
declined by 51 percent. After losing $1.3 million in 1998, NTIS cut its
staff from 337 to 255 and managed a $600,000 profit for 1999.
With further losses looming, some members of Congress wonder whether
it's time to do away with the agency.
Commerce says yes and has drafted legislation to do so. In a letter
to the General Accounting Office in June, deputy Commerce secretary Robert
Mallett wrote that "NTIS, as currently structured, is not viable." He urged
Congress to "review its mission in the age of the Internet."
And GAO, which conducts investigations for Congress, predicts that NTIS
will be insolvent after 2003.
But shutting down the agency down would mean other agencies would have
to take over the administration of 55 years' worth of government research
reports. And several agencies considered for that task, including the Library
of Congress, the Government Printing Office and the National Archives and
Records Administration, have told GAO that they would need bigger budgets
to take on the extra work.
Other NTIS services also would have to be reassigned. For example, NTIS
hosts the Internal Revenue Service's Web pages and operates an online foreign
news service that features news translated each day by the CIA.
So far, legislation to eliminate the NTIS has not been introduced, said
Michael Brostek of GAO. And in a report to Congress, Brostek said that lawmakers
should reassess whether the NTIS is needed, and if it is, whether it should
still be required to operate as a self-supporting entity.