GAO: Closing NTIS not easy

A year ago, its own parent agency said the National Technical Information

Service has been made obsolete by the Internet and should be abolished.

But the General Accounting Office has given the obscure agency new hope

for survival.

If NTIS shuts down, some other agency will have to take over its job,

said Michael Brostek, GAO's associate director of federal management and

work force issues. A federal commission reached a similar conclusion in

March and urged President Clinton and Congress to keep NTIS alive at least

until 2001.

Established in 1945 as a subsidiary of the Commerce Department, NTIS

serves as 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.

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.

Even GAO, which conducts audits and investigations for Congress, predicts

that NTIS will be insolvent after 2003.

But shutting down the agency would mean handing others the task of administering

55 years' worth of government research reports.

Brostek noted that while research reports are available for free from

many federal agencies, they are typically not available "forever," and reports

written in the pre-Internet days are usually available only through NTIS.

In a report to Congress, Brostek said that lawmakers should not only

consider whether NTIS is needed, but whether it should still be required

to be self-supporting.

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