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Commerce sets new, hands-off direction for department

March 08, 2018
By: Jason Rittenberg

In a shift from its past economic development efforts, the U.S. Department of Commerce FY2018-2023 strategic plan would move the department to focus almost exclusively on being a commercial services entity. The plan’s points of emphasis are on streamlined permitting and regulations, with direct government activity primarily reserved for common good services — e.g., economic data, cybersecurity and IP protection. References to activities providing direct support for businesses and regional economies are ranked as lower priorities or nonexistent. EDA is left out of not only the descriptions of how the department’s bureaus will contribute to strategic objectives, but also out of the list of offices comprising the department.

Innovation is defined in the strategic plan as an objective — a downgrade from its inclusion as one of the previous plan’s top five goals — toward accelerating American leadership, with an emphasis on promoting quantum computing, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing. The plan also references building “regional capacity for entrepreneurship and innovation” as a strategy toward strengthening the U.S. industrial base. This would seem to be a clear reference to the Regional Innovation Strategies program, although neither the program nor EDA are mentioned in the report.

The plan places a new emphasis on four innovation-related objectives:

  • Strengthen IP protection - the department, largely through the patent office, will work toward improving timeliness;
  • Enhance cybersecurity - NIST is directed to set standards and drive policy;
  • Expand commercial space - the Office of Space Commerce is being promoted from within NOAA to a direct report to Secretary Wilbur Ross; and,
  • Increase aquaculture production - NOAA will work to improve permitting and expand research related to a new objective of increasing aquaculture production (aquaculture has been a consistent concern for the secretary, who cites an $11 billion U.S. trade deficit on seafood).

Manufacturing is discussed at a few points in the document but, unlike in the previous plan, is not the focal point of any goals or objectives. Strikingly, NIST will continue to partner “to accelerate the transfer of manufacturing technology and expertise to help manufacturers overcome shared technical challenges” — a fitting descriptor of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program that the administration has proposed to eliminate and which is not mentioned in the report.

Within the framework of the administration’s broader policy priorities, the new plan’s de-emphasis of trade is surprising. Rather than naming international commerce as a top goal, trade efforts — increasing exports and foreign direct investment and enforcing trade laws — are the only relevant objectives.

Ultimately, the new plan sets a direction in alignment with the administration’s FY 2019 budget proposal. How the plan may change if Congress continues to set its own priorities for the agency is currently unclear.

dept of commerce, nist, federal agency