NTIS hiring freeze eases up

A yearlong hiring freeze that threatened to cripple the National Technical

Information Service has begun to thaw.

The information-handling agency has permission to hire "a small number"

of information technology workers, NTIS' parent, the Commerce Department,

has confirmed.

The approval to hire follows an October warning that the NTIS staff

had dwindled to the edge of ineffectiveness. The agency — which warehouses

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

information — has shrunk to about 200 employees. It had about 320 employees

in mid-1999.

Commerce spokesman Jim Plante said NTIS will be allowed to make "a small

number of full-time hires in critical areas." He identified the jobs to

be filled as IT positions but said he did know how many "a small number"

would be.

Easing the freeze came after members of a national commission warned

Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta last month that NTIS "is rapidly falling

below the minimum satisfactory level of staffing needed to sustain it as

an effective program to support federal research and development information

dissemination to the public."

The U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science warned

that continued shrinkage of the NTIS staff would hurt federal agencies,

libraries and private companies that rely on scientific and technical information

that NTIS stores and sells.

But hiring just a few IT workers may not be enough to restore the agency,

said Woody Horton, a consultant at the commission. "If it's just information

technology people, it's not going to do the job. What they are losing are

experienced professionals who know about content and databases and all the

things NTIS does."

NTIS is supposed to be self-supporting, but in 1999 its financial status

looked bleak. In August 1999, then-Commerce Secretary William Daley declared

that the agency was no longer needed. Proponents of closing it argued that

the Internet made it possible for federal agencies to quickly and easily

disseminate their own research reports.

However, members of Congress blocked efforts to shut down the 55-year-old

NTIS. Later, the General Accounting Office reported that if NTIS were shut

down, its function would have to be taken over by some other agency.

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