The Science and Technology Angle on the Commerce Reorganization

Earlier today President Obama announced his intention to request authority for a major reorganization of the executive branch.  He would like to place the business and trade functions of the Department of Commerce, along with five other agencies, into a single agency (its future web home is called BusinessUSA).  Congress would need to sign off on the reorganizations, as the President currently doesn’t have such authority (though the office did for a large portion of the 20th century).  The five other agencies are the Small Business Administration (its’ head will take the reins of this new entity), the Export-Import Bank, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Trade and Development Agency.

So far one might wonder where the science and technology angle comes in.  For that we have to look at what’s left.  While ABC News is suggesting the Commerce Department might disappear after this reorganization, that shows a fundamental ignorance of all the Department does.  It hosts a large number of science and technology agencies, including the:

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • National Telecommunications and Information Administration
  • National Technical Information Service
  • Census Bureau
  • U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Arguably ScienceInsider’s coverage of the announcement focused on a relatively small part of the announcement – an apparent confirmation that NOAA was not placed in the Interior Department out of spite.  The relevant quote:

“If you’re wondering what the genesis of this was, apparently, it had something to do with President Nixon being unhappy with his Interior Secretary for criticizing him about the Vietnam War. And so he decided not to put NOAA in what would have been a more sensible place.”

That was the extent of the reporting from Science on this point.  It just goes to show that its rarely science and technology policy in Washington, even though there’s an Office of Science and Technology Policy.

While I have not seen official confirmation of this, it is assumed that moving NOAA to the Interior Department would be on the table for a future re-organization.  Presumably what remains of Commerce could remain as a separate agency, be spread across other parts of the executive branch, or become independent agencies.

Congress would have to approve the executive authority to re-organize, and then approve each re-organization the President submits.  I’d say more about the specifics, but the bill outlining this has not been released.  Given that Congress has a hard time passing gas these days, I don’t know if they will see fit to approve it.  But I think all science and technology advocates and analysts should pay more attention to this than the reporting would suggest.

And, headline writers, the Commerce Department isn’t going anywhere, even if this reorganization goes through.  Maybe that speaks to how well the Department communicates what they do.

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