Free reports not easy on NTIS

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, www.usda.gov.

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 Department's site.

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 have dwindled.

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.

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