Like college students pulling all-nighters to cram for exams and crank out term papers, Congress and President Bill Clinton waited until mid-December to finish many of the appropriations bills needed to keep the federal government operating in the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, 2000.
Although most of the government programs of most direct interest to the laser industry had received their federal appropriations before December, tucked away in the blizzard of the last-minute legislation were some items of interest.
For example, the appropriations bill that covers the Commerce Department included $145 million for the Advanced Technology Program at the National Institutes for Standards and Technology. The ATP provides grants for technology research that has commercial potential but that also is too immature to attract private capital. Only $60 million of the funds are available for new grants, with the rest to be used for grants that already have been awarded. Republicans love to hate the ATP, and it seems a likely casualty of the Bush administration.
And a bill authorizing money for US intelligence agencies hints at a possible increased emphasis on "measurement and signature intelligence," or the use of data gathered by electro-optical and other technologies, to divine the activities of friends and foes around the world.
The bill requires the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department to conduct a study "of the utility and feasibility of various options for improving the management and organization of measurement and signature intelligence," including using existing systems in different ways and establishing a central facility for analyzing the data. The report is due April 1.
Lawmakers also bickered with one another about how to prevent the National Reconnaissance Office—which is in charge of the nation's fleet of billion-dollar spy satellites, which use optical and other technologies—from losing any more of the spacecraft to rocket explosions during launch.
In the past, the US Air Force has obtained rockets on NRO's behalf, but several recent mishaps led the House of Representatives to insist that the intelligence bill include a provision requiring NRO to obtain rockets on its own. The House had added that provision over the objections of the Senate. But President Clinton vetoed the bill on an unrelated issue, and when the lawmakers scrambled to pass a revised version during the December rush, the Senate again sought to have it removed. Members of the House agreed, reluctantly, because they recognized that the clock was ticking.
In the education-appropriations bill, Congress also expanded the availability of tax deductions for corporations that donate fiberoptic cable, as well as computers or software, to elementary schools. The law specifies that the donated material must be relatively new—less than two years after it was originally installed at the corporation, or less than three years old if the corporation itself acquired the fiberoptics or computers from another corporation.
Congress also quietly passed a bill to create a new part of the National Institutes of Health, called the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. "Basic research in imaging, bioengineering, computer science, informatics, and related fields is critical to improving health care but is fundamentally different from the research" currently conducted at NIH, the bill says. "To ensure the development of new techniques and technologies for the 21st century, these disciplines therefore require an identity and research home at the NIH that is independent of the existing institute structure."
As expected, Congress and President Clinton agreed to reauthorize several programs at the Small Business Association, including its Small Business Innovation Research and Small Disadvantaged Business programs. In addition, lawmakers provided funds for the New Markets Venture Capital, New Markets Technical Assistance, and BusinessLINC programs, which provide capital and technical assistance for entrepreneurs.
Overall, research and development programs in the federal government fared quite well in funding in 2001: The American Association for the Advancement of Science estimates that federal R&D programs received a total of $90.9 billion, an increase of $7.6 billion—or 9.1 percent—over the 2000 funding level. That's the first time that research and development exceeded $9 billion. Many federal agencies actually received more money for research and development than President Clinton requested.
And growth in federal spending on research and development will continue to increase, if George W. Bush is able to deliver on his campaign promises. Bush promised to increase military R&D by $20 billion and to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health. He also promised to make permanent a temporary tax credit for R&D expenditures by industry.
How quickly President Bush will move to make those promises into reality will become clear when he submits his 2002 budget to Congress. Under federal law, he's supposed to submit the budget in early February, but the protracted controversy over the election results—and the delay in naming officials for his administration—probably will delay the budget announcement by a few weeks.