Federal News Network: A NIST official subtly breaks with administration budget detail

By Tom Temin

As the cherry blossoms fade and the muggy Washington summer approaches, the federal budget hearings have cranked up. Those for big departments make the cable TV shows because committee members are sometimes less interested in the federal budget than in some political bone to pick with the secretary. But what about at components, like, say, the National Institute of Standards and Technology?

Yes, the budget process is broken. Yes, the government will likely head into 2020 under a continuing resolution. Yes, the growing debt will get lip service here and there but no real attention.

Yet at the more granular level, the federal budget does receive serious attention and debate. And in one back-and-forth, tacit agreement for a plus-up between a Democratic congressman and an appointee of a Republican administration.

A hearing on the NIST budget, conducted by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s subcommittee on research and technology showed possibilities different from the norm. NIST, for its outsize influence and support, consumes a trivial part of federal spending. It’s proposing $686 million for 2020. It’ll probably end up getting more, considering it has bipartisan support and was appropriated something to the tune of $1.1 billion as late as 2016.

In laying out the priorities for its research and grant-making, NIST Director Walter Copan named quantum computing, microelectronics, artificial intelligence, 5G communications and advanced manufacturing. Obvious initiatives for the mission of supporting U.S. competitiveness, they were also recited by members of the subcommittee.

In the pleasant exchanges, it came out from Illinois Democrat Bill Foster that NIST proposes to close the Advanced Materials Center of Excellence. It happens to live “near” Foster’s district, so there’s that familiar parochial concern. But Foster had a larger point, namely that if so much manufacturing advancement comes from advances in material science, why close it? It only costs about $15 million, he pointed out. It supports development in metals, polymers and biological materials.

Foster asked Copan a fair question: “Do you view these as unimportant technologies?”

Copan replied that the Advanced Materials Center of Excellence has been an “absolutely outstanding example” of public-private partnership. It’s materials genome initiative has delivered “tremendous value,” he said, by showing how artificial intelligence can speed new materials development. But, he said, a bit lamely,  “difficult decisions needed to be made.”

Foster then asked whether the abrupt closure of such an apparently successful program “does violence to attitudes of the incoming workforce.”

Copan came back with a curious reply: Those employees and potential employees, he said, “look forward to the hard work of this committee to make sure the right choices are ultimately made, and that the long term strategic goals of this nation are ultimately addressed, regardless of administration, regardless of political cycle, to ensure that American leadership is secured.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but this and a similar, subsequent exchanges sounded to me as if Copan was signaling the subcommittee to please, go ahead and put back the money for the center of excellence.

In fact, Foster then said, “I’m pretty sure I can read between the lines of what you’re saying. We’re on your side in this. I just wish you luck in all your negotiations upwards in the org chart.”

Whoa, a crack between a mid-level operative in the Trump administration and a relatively junior representative from the opposite party? Yes, but that’s not the whole story.

From their biographies, neither Copan nor Foster are scientific slouches. They both hold PhDs, Copan in chemistry from Case Western Reserve University and Foster in physics from Harvard. Both have distinguished scientific backgrounds. So, while the hearing included some inter-party exchange, it also included a debate with a wink between peers in a realm outside of politics.

My two cents: Advances in material science enable or lie at the heart of countless advances in technology and industry. Yeah, $15 million doesn’t seem like a bad investment.