The House Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Technology held two recent hearings to discuss programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). An April 18 hearing examined the FY 2014 budget proposal and a March 20 hearing examined the effectiveness of NIST laboratories.
During the April 18 hearing Members heard an overview of the President’s FY 2014 budget proposal from Patrick Gallagher, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director. Gallagher assured the subcommittee that the budget reflects the President’s interest in advanced manufacturing and supports manufacturing technologies by investing in research and development. He also described the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), the global manufacturing centers that were proposed in the FY 2014 budget request. While Gallagher described that the $1 billion in mandatory spending for the NNMI “aims to bring together a national network of companies, universities, and community colleges,” there was concern about the cost of this program by some subcommittee members.
Gallagher also described how scientific programmatic initiatives at NIST were tied to overarching themes within the President’s FY 2014 budget request including cybersecurity and other top concerns for the Administration. He stated that the focus on cybersecurity would strengthen research and development and would allow NIST to further engage with industry. Also discussed at the hearing were the Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program and the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortium, the latter a program to establish an industry-like consortia to identify and prioritize longer-term research needs.
“The NIST laboratory programs, along with its outreach efforts in standards development work are dedicated to providing US industry with the tools they need to innovate and compete and flourish in today’s fierce global economy,” stated Gallagher.
Subcommittee Chairman Thomas Massie (R-KY) described the subcommittee’s long-standing bi-partisan support for NIST but was concerned about the 24 percent increase in NIST’s budget. “That type of increase, in a time of decreasing budgets will be very difficult to achieve and will require significant changes in other areas,” he stated. Massie’s questions for the witness included where the funding for the $1 billion National Network of Manufacturing Innovation would come from. Gallagher’s response was that this would be a one-time investment to attract private sector research and development funding and that this program would be based at NIST to advance US competitiveness.
Ranking Member Frederica Wilson (D-FL) stated that “in this time of painfully high unemployment, we need NIST” she also highlighted that “NIST is an economic engine for this nation” as she emphasized how the US needs strategic investments in education, research and development. She was pleased with the emphasis on advanced manufacturing and showed support for the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation which she felt would “bridge the gap from research and development to commercialization through proof of concept activities and collaboration with industry.” She was also pleased that the funding in the FY 2014 budget request included $5 million in disaster resilience.
The March 20 hearing examined how research performed at NIST laboratories will improve US innovation and competitiveness. This hearing was held in preparation for the reauthorization of NIST so subcommittee Members were interested in hearing recommendations from witnesses on how to improve laboratory effectiveness.
Massie was particularly interested in learning how NIST prioritizes and coordinates research projects and how the agency strikes a balance between short-term, lower-risk projects and long-term, higher risk projects. He noted that NIST researchers have been awarded four Nobel prizes in physics as he acknowledged that “measurement science conducted at NIST laboratories contributes to industrial competitiveness by buttressing the technical infrastructure for advancements in nanotechnology, global positioning systems, materials sciences, cybersecurity, health information technology, and a variety of other fields. Research conducted at NIST laboratories has been lauded by independent outside review panels as being among the best in the world.”
Wilson was interested in following the progress of the reorganization of NIST laboratories as defined by the America COMPETES Act of 2010. That law reduced the number of NIST laboratories from 10 to 6 in an effort to “create mission-focused laboratories that were vertically integrated so a single lab would be responsible for everything from basic research to the delivery of products and services to its customers.” Wilson also wanted to hear about NIST’s cross-cutting research efforts and asked witnesses for recommendations to promote manufacturing programs at NIST.
Willie May, Associate Director of Laboratory Programs at NIST described three areas of focus for NIST laboratory programs including “driving innovation through measurement science, accelerating the adoption and development of advanced technology solutions, and providing new unique, world class, cutting edge facilities for use by industry and academia.” May highlighted NIST’s scientific discovery programs as well as the agency’s collaboration with visiting scientists and support for emerging technologies.
Ross Corotis, Professor at the University of Colorado and Member of the Laboratory Assessments Board at the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Sciences described the roles of the NRC and the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT) in assessment of NIST programs. He stated that a report published by the NRC described guidelines for assessments by VCAT and the NRC in areas of management, quality of scientific and technical work, and relevance and impact. Corotis recommended that the subcommittee authorize NIST at the fullest extent possible.
Questions from Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) included how NIST is improving its strategic planning process and its relationship with stakeholders. May responded that NIST considered describing its activities in terms of national priorities. Capacity building and technical capabilities were also discussed in the context of NIST activities. Hultgren asked witnesses about options for NIST involvement in brain research. May stated that NIST was positioning itself to address issues in the biosciences though stated that NIST research has traditionally been in the physical sciences.
Wilson wanted to draw attention to bioscience research as it relates to NISTs ability to work with industry and federal regulatory agencies. She was interested to hear from Corotis whether he felt that the National Academies should review bioscience activities at NIST to which he responded, “it would definitely be beneficial.”
Massie asked witnesses to provide their opinions on how they would promote funding for NIST programs. Corotis highlighted NIST manufacturing initiatives, sustainability and safety, and investigation of hazards while May stated that laboratory programs were a priority and described the cutting-edge nature of NIST research. May further addressed the value of NIST facilities and NIST’s role in the manufacturing process.