Advanced Technology Program:

Inherent Factors in Selection Process Could Limit Identification of Similar Research

RCED-00-114: Published: Apr 24, 2000. Publicly Released: Apr 26, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Advanced Technology Program (ATP), focusing on: (1) whether, in the past, ATP had funded projects with research goals that were similar to projects funded by the private sector; and (2) if such cases were identified, whether ATP's award selection process ensures that such research would not be funded in the future.

GAO noted that: (1) the three completed ATP-funded projects, which were approved for funding in 1990 and 1992, addressed similar research goals to those already funded by the private sector; (2) the projects included an on-line handwriting recognition system, a system to increase the capacity of existing fiber optic cables for the telecommunications industry, and a process for turning collagen into fibers for human prostheses use; (3) in the case of the handwriting recognition project, ATP provided $1.2 million to develop a system to recognize cursive handwriting for pen-based (i.e., without a keyboard) computer input; (4) GAO identified several private firms that were conducting similar research on handwriting recognition at approximately the same time the ATP project was funded; (5) in fact, this line of research began in the late 1950s; (6) in addition, GAO identified multiple patents, as early as 5 years prior to the start of the ATP project, in the field of handwriting recognition; (7) GAO found similar results in the other two projects; (8) two inherent factors in ATP's award selection process--the need to guard against conflicts of interest and the need to protect proprietary information--make it unlikely that ATP can avoid funding research already being pursued by the private sector in the same time period; (9) these factors, which have not changed since 1990, make it difficult for ATP project reviewers to identify similar efforts in the private sector; (10) for example, to guard against conflicts of interest, the program uses technical experts who are not directly involved with the proposed research; (11) their acquaintance with on-going research is further limited by the private sector's practice of not disclosing its research efforts or results so as to guard proprietary information; and (12) as a result, it may not be possible for the program to ensure that it is consistently not funding existing or planned research that would be conducted in the same time period in the absence of ATP financial assistance.

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