LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Let Me Google That For You. That's the name of a new bill being considered in Congress. If passed, the bill would abolish an outdated federal agency that's still pursuing its Cold War mission in the age of the search engine. NPR's S.V. Date reports.
S.V. DATE, BYLINE: Say you wanted to know more about supersonic retro-propulsion windtunnel testing or ancient land use in the Mayan lowlands or a 1996 hazardous waste characteristic scoping study. OK, you don't really want to know about these things, but someone did. And someone did the research.
Back in 1950, Congress created an agency to find that research.The National Technical Information Service was told to catalog, warehouse, and make available all manner of scientific and academic papers. That was 64 years ago, decades before the Internet was even invented. So what's an easy way to find those papers now?
SENATOR TOM COBURN: My typing isn't great.
DATE: Tom Coburn is a Republican senator from Oklahoma. At a computer in his Senate office, he's looking for one of those reports, the one about the hazardous waste. NTIS sells it on their website - $25 for an electronic file, $73 for a paper copy. But Coburn goes looking on his own. And...
COBURN: There it is. There's everything you want on it. There's the appendices. Here's the characteristics of the study. And I can print it out now. I don't want it, but I can print it out right now on my computer and have it in two minutes.
DATE: And how much does it cost at the EPA website? That would be nothing. Zero. And that, says the Government Accountability Office, is the problem. A GAO audit found that 74 percent of the more recent NTIS reports it sampled were available from other sources. And 95 percent of those reports were free on the Internet. Valerie Melvin is the audit's author.
VALERIE MELVIN: For example, we could find a GAO report that was selling for maybe 30-some dollars that is on our website for free. So we questioned the viability and appropriateness of that fee-based model that they were using.
DATE: For that problem, Tom Coburn has this solution.
COBURN: Let me Google that for you.
DATE: That's actually the official title of Coburn's bill - the Let Me Google That for You Act of 2014. And it has a pretty simple purpose, to abolish the NTIS. The agency is headquartered across the Potomac River from Washington in an Alexandria, Va. office park near the Capital Beltway.
Judy Russell is the Dean of Libraries at the University of Florida in Gainesville and an NTIS advisory board member. She says the agency continues to provide value to researchers by creating a standardized catalog, for example, for all its reports. She says it has to charge for documents because of the law that requires it to be self-sustaining.
JUDITH RUSSELL: I think they do have a valid and important mission but a clumsy piece of governing legislature.
DATE: Coburn counters that the report-selling business still loses money and what revenue it does have largely comes from other federal agencies which are using taxpayer money. As might be expected, his bill is pretty popular.
But even popular bills don't get through Congress very often these days. And so the clock may run out on the Let Me Google That for You Act of 2014. But if that happens - and even with Coburn retiring - there's probably a good chance of a Let Me Google That for You Act of 2015. S.V. Date, NPR News, the capital.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.