Representatives from both sides of the aisle offered varying levels of praise for the standards science and technology agency, although the chairman criticized the proposed funding source for expanding the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation and highlighted the committee’s continuing investigations following the discovery of a meth lab at the agency last year.
“NIST may be the most important federal agency that most people have never heard of,” proclaimed House Science Committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) at a March 16 hearing to review the president’s fiscal year 2017 budget request for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST director Willie May was the sole witness at the hearing.
“It would be almost impossible to overstate the importance of NIST,” Johnson stressed, saying that “every industry and nearly every technology relies on the measurement and standards work at NIST.” Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) was more muted in his praise, simply saying that NIST “supports fundamental scientific research that is critical to American innovation and competitiveness.”
He then asserted that the committee’s investigation following the July 2015 discovery of a meth lab operated by a NIST police officer at the agency “appears to show a culture of waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct” among the agency’s police services. Furthermore, in response to learning about unrelated incidents pertaining to plutonium storage and disposal, Smith is requesting information from NIST on its handling of nuclear materials.
Members commented on a wide range of subjects—such as technology transfer from the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program and NIST’s role in cybersecurity and engineering biology research—but much of the discussion focused on the next steps in expanding the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI).
Advancing the advanced manufacturing network
Under the president’s budget request, NIST would receive a 5.2 percent increase in discretionary funding for fiscal year 2017, bringing the agency’s budget to just over $1 billion. The president also proposes to inject almost $2 billion of new mandatory funding into NIST to support a rapid expansion of NNMI over fiscal years 2017 through 2025.
Initially called for in President Obama’s 2013 and 2014 State of the Union speeches and authorized in 2014, NNMI is a growing constellation of topically-focused, public-private institutes dedicated to developing advanced manufacturing technologies. The institutes created to date focus on topics such as integrated photonics, wide-bandgap semiconductors, flexible electronics, and advanced composites.
None of the members bothered even mentioning the mandatory funding, another indication of Congress’s chilly reception to the president’s proposed method of plussing up various accounts using new mandatory funding streams. However, the budget does request $22 million more for NNMI in discretionary funding, an 88 percent increase over last fiscal year.
Committee members pointed out that the legislation authorizing NNMI specifies that up to $250 million can be transferred to NIST from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy (DOE) to support manufacturing institutes between fiscal years 2015 and 2024, whereas only $5 million per year may come from NIST’s Industrial Technical Services account.
So far no money has been transferred from DOE. Smith emphasized that the requested increase for NNMI is “of particular concern” and that transfer of funds from DOE “must [happen] if the program is to continue.”
Reps. Randy Holtgren (R-IL) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) both asked about how NIST selects topics for institutes, expressing concern about potential political influence on topic selection and potential duplication of efforts by other agencies, respectively.
Hultgren also seemed frustrated with the pace of expansion. “It’s been a little disappointing and frustrating on our part that it hasn’t moved more quickly,” he said.
NIST is currently soliciting proposals for new institutes, with pre-applications due no later than April 20. NIST recently held a “Proposers Day” to explain the submission requirements, and a video of the event is available here.
Johnson promotes engineering biology bill
Johnson used her opening statement to indicate her support of the requested funding increases for NIST’s research on engineering biology – an emerging, multidisciplinary field focused on creating new methods for manufacturing biological materials.
She then highlighted a bill she introduced last year with Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) – the “Engineering Biology Research and Development Act of 2015.”
The bill directs NIST, DOE, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and EPA to all conduct additional research on engineering biology as part of a new National Engineering Biology Research and Development Program. It also directs NIST and DOE to provide other agencies and non-governmental organizations access to user facilities for engineering biology research.
The bill’s provisions are included in the House Democratic version of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, however they are absent from the House-passed COMPETES Act championed by Smith.