National Bureau of Standards--Answers to Congressional Concerns

CED-80-49: Published: Feb 2, 1980. Publicly Released: Feb 2, 1980.

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The National Bureau of Standards (NBS), part of the Department of Commerce, supports the U.S. scientific and technical community by setting standards for the nation's physical measurement system and carrying out a number of scientific and technical services for industry and government. Information was requested for use by the congressional committees responsible for reauthorizing NBS activities beyond fiscal year 1980. The report concerns: (1) problems faced by NBS because of implementation by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) of its "lead agency" concept whereby an agency charged with a specific mission is the primary source of funds to support all activities contributing to that mission, regardless of whether they are carried out by that agency or by others; (2) user satisfaction with NBS research efforts; (3) an evaluation of major reprogramming by NBS of its research efforts; and (4) information on which of the acts that assign responsibilities to NBS overlap, duplicate, or are in conflict with other acts.

The ability of NBS to perform its assigned function has been hampered by implementation of the lead agency policy. OMB has not recognized that measurement is a NBS lead agency responsibility; rather, OMB has taken the position that if measurement is directly related to another lead agency's mission, that agency should fund it. Inevitably, funds being considered by other agencies for allocation to NBS are more likely to be cut or directed to higher priorities within the lead agency. Respondents to a questionnaire sent to users of NBS services and interviewees from the NBS evaluation panels and the Statutory Visiting Committee gave high ratings to NBS services. The NBS reprogramming effort was too recent for GAO to evaluate in terms of its impact on NBS scientific work or on the users of the programs that were terminated. The terminated programs were worthwhile but of lower priority than the programs proposed to replace them. GAO found no inconsistency, conflict, or substantial duplication among the acts assigning responsibilities to NBS. Legislation enacted since the 1901 act which gave NBS broad authority to determine its scientific activities has focused attention on specific national problems and made major policy decisions in the areas of science and technology.

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