Taking tech for granted

A congressional panel this month debated whether a Commerce Department program that funds risky commercial research and development projects fosters private- sector innovation or hinders university research. Michael Borrus, managing director of the Petkevich Group LLC, told the House Science Committee's Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee that the Advanced Technology Program, run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, fills an important gap. It fosters "technical innovation to the point where private capital markets can then sustain development," he said.

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

Still, not everyone is convinced that ATP is the right approach. Claude Barfield, director of science and technology policy 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 researchbefore supporting proj.ects for private corporations such as those that form the basis of the ATP program," Barfield testified.

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

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