NTIS steamed over hiring freeze

If you want federal tax forms and filing instructions on CD-ROM, or a copy

of the U.S. Statistical Abstract, or access to numerous federal databases,

the National Technical Information Service is the place to go.

But it might be a good idea to hurry.

The NTIS is dwindling under a hiring freeze imposed by the Commerce

Department.

Employee reductions have been so substantial that the agency "is rapidly

falling below the minimum satisfactory level of staffing needed to sustain

it," the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science warned

in a letter to Commerce Department Secretary Norman Mineta. The commission

advises the president and Congress on library and information policies.

Several federal agencies that rely on the NTIS to store, catalog and

disseminate their scientific and technical information "are fearful that

the freeze's continuation will adversely impact their missions," wrote commission

chairwoman Martha Gould Oct. 10.

Corporate and federal libraries that require access to scientific and

technical information are also increasingly concerned, she said.

So far, Mineta has not replied.

NTIS, which boasts that it is the "nation's largest central resource

for government-funded scientific, technical, engineering and business-related

information," has lost about 40 percent of its staff, according to Woody

Horton, a consultant at the National Commission on Libraries and Information

Science.

The staff of about 340 has shrunk to about 200, he said. The agency

is "losing key people with experience and professional skills" that will

be difficult to replace.

If the hiring freeze continues, the NTIS is likely to become "so dysfunctional

that revitalizing it would be extremely daunting, if not impossible," Gould

warned.

That might be what Commerce has in mind. In 1999, the department announced

it wanted to shut NTIS down or transfer it to the Library of Congress. Now

that agencies can post their scientific reports and statistical data online,

the NTIS is no longer needed, officials at Commerce argued.

Besides, the NTIS is losing money. Since 1988, the agency has been required

to earn at least enough money through report sales and other revenue-generating

activities to support itself. But in recent years, sales and income have

declined.

Last summer, however, the General Accounting Office urged Congress not

to shut the NTIS down. If the NTIS disappears, some other agency will have

to do its work, the GAO said. Whether the NTIS remains part of Commerce

or is transferred elsewhere, the hiring freeze should be lifted, Gould told

Mineta. "I urge you to take swift action" before the agency's condition

becomes critical."

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