What Would Wiping Out the Commerce Department Mean for Science?

President Barack Obama's proposal to eliminate the Commerce Department promises to reignite sharp debates about the best home for its sizable but patchwork research and technology portfolio.

The Commerce Department now includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the Census Bureau. Under Obama's plan announced today, NOAA would migrate to the Department of the Interior, which is already home to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The rest of Commerce's scientific portfolio would be reconstituted under a new Cabinet department focused on trade and economic development. Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the White House Office of Management and Budget, told reporters today that it would be a "tightly knit department with four pillars." NIST and the patent office would be part of a technology and innovation office within the new department, while the Census Bureau would join other data-collection agencies now in Commerce under a new statistical division that would also pick up the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the Department of Labor. A third office would oversee trade and investment policies, while the fourth would promote small business development.

NOAA was created in 1970 along with the Environmental Protection Agency. But instead of becoming an independent agency or a part of the Interior Department, President Richard Nixon chose to place it in the Commerce Department. In contrast, NIST, until 1988 the National Bureau of Standards, has been in Commerce since 1903, as has the Census Bureau. The patent office joined the department in 1925.

The changes are part of a broader effort by the Administration to make government more efficient, Zients explained. The first step, taken by executive order, elevates the Small Business Administration, headed by Karen Mills, to a Cabinet-level agency.

But everything after that—demolition of the Commerce Department, the creation of a new department, and any additional government reshuffling—can't happen unless Congress gives the president new authority to manage the executive branch. And that would take the sort of bipartisanship that's rare in an election year and almost never seen these days on Capitol Hill.

Today's proposal needs to be further refined, Zients admitted during a teleconference with reporters. Asked how NOAA would be folded into the Interior Department, for example, Zients said that "the appropriate integration … will be worked out" in the months to come. He did say, however, that any plan "would make sure that we achieve NOAA's mission."