Benefits, risks of ATP weighed

A congressional panel on Thursday debated the merits and effectiveness of the Advanced Technology Program while the program's administrator, the Commerce Department, wrestles with the next steps to take.

The ATP, run by Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, funds risky commercial research and development projects on a cost-shared basis.

Critics call ATP corporate welfare, and advocates say ATP bolsters promising research and development projects that might otherwise not make it past the drawing board.

Panelists at a House hearing Thursday supported and criticized the ATP program. Michael Borrus, managing director at The Petkevich Group LLC, said that the "ATP program works and works well."

ATP fills an important gap, Borrus said in his testimony before the House Science Committee's Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee. "[It] fosters technical innovation to the point where private capital markets can then sustain development."

Maryann Feldman, an economist and research professor at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, said ATP is effective. It funds the types of projects that economists "expect to yield economic growth, and the types of risky projects that firms are unlikely to pursue without government incentives," she said in her testimony.

Still not everyone is convinced that ATP is the right approach. Claude Barfield, director of science and technology policies studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, supports consortium-based funding. He believes there is a need to "protect basic and university research before supporting projects for private corporations such as those that form the basis of the ATP program," Barfield said in written testimony.

Meanwhile, it's clear that changes are afoot for ATP. In its fiscal 2002 budget request, the administration asked for only $13 million to support ongoing ATP project commitments and said it would suspend any new grant awards while the Commerce Department evaluates the program.

Also, the department told Congress April 23 that it planned to suspend any new grant awards for fiscal 2001 and use the already-appropriated funds for other things such as to continue previously awarded grants.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), the subcommittee chairman and a supporter of ATP, said it's time for a "definitive decision" on the program's future. "We need to either continue ATP with minimal changes, restructure the program with wholesale changes, or else move forward with an entirely new approach," he said in his opening statement.

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