NIST Works on the Industries of the Future in Buildings from the Past

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The standards agency updated lawmakers on its artificial intelligence and quantum computing efforts and it’s $775 million deferred maintenance backlog.

The president’s budget request for fiscal 2021 proposed $738 million to fund the National Institutes of Science and Technology, a dramatic reduction from the more than $1 billion in enacted funds allocated for the agency this fiscal year. 

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Research and Technology Subcommittee on Wednesday held a hearing to hone in on NIST’s reauthorization—but instead of focusing on relevant budget considerations, lawmakers had other plans. 

“We're disappointed by the president's destructive budget request, which proposes over a 30% cut to NIST programs,” Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., said at the top of the hearing. “But today, I don't want to dwell on a proposal that we know Congress is going to reject ... today I would like this committee to focus on improving NIST and getting the agency the tools it needs to do better, to do its job.”

Per Stevens’ suggestion, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Walter Copan reflected on some of the agency’s dire needs and offered updates and his view on a range of its ongoing programs and efforts.

NIST’s Facilities Are in Bad Shape

President Trump’s budget proposal for fiscal 2021 requests only $60 million in funds for facility construction, which is down from the $118 million enacted for fiscal 2020 and comes at a time when the agency’s workspaces need upgrades.   

“Indeed the condition of NIST facilities are challenging,” Copan explained. “Over 55% of NIST's facilities are considered in poor to critical condition per [Commerce Department] standards, and so it does provide some significant challenges for us.”

Some of the agency’s decades-old facilities and infrastructures are deteriorating and Copan added that he’d recently heard NIST’s deferred maintenance backlog has hit more than $775 million. If the lawmakers or public venture out to visit some of the agency’s facilities, “you'll see the good, the bad, and the embarrassingly bad,” he said. Those conditions “are a testament to the resilience and the commitment of NIST’s people, that they can work in sometimes challenging, outdated environments,” Copan said.

The director noted that there have already been some “creative solutions” proposed to address the issue, including the development of a federal capital revolving fund. The agency is also “looking creatively” at the combination of maintenance with lease options for some of its facilities, in hopes that it can then move more rapidly by having its officials cycle out of laboratories to launch rebuilding and renovation processes. 

“It's one of my top priorities as the NIST director to have our NIST people work in 21st-century facilities that we can be proud of and that enable the important work of NIST for the nation,” Copan said. 

Advancing Efforts in Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing

The president’s budget request placed a sharp focus on “industries of the future,” which will be powered by many emerging technologies, and particularly quantum computing and AI.

During the hearing and in his written testimony, Copan highlighted some of NIST’s work in both areas. The agency has helped shape an “entire generation of quantum science,” over the last century, and “a significant portion” of quantum scientists from around the globe have trained at the agency’s facilities. Some of NIST’s more recent quantum achievements include supporting the development of a quantum logic clock and helping steer advancements in quantum simulation. Following a recent mandate from the Trump administration, the agency is also in the midst of instituting the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, or QEDC, which aims to advance industry collaboration to expand the nation’s leadership in quantum research and development. 

“Looking forward, over the coming years NIST will focus a portion of its quantum research portfolio on the grand challenge of quantum networking,” Copan’s written testimony said. “Serving as the basis for secure and highly efficient quantum information transmission that links together multiple quantum devices and sensors, quantum networks will be a key element in the long-term evolution of quantum technologies.” 

Though there were cuts across many areas, the president’s budget request also proposed a doubling of NIST’s funding in artificial intelligence and Copan said the technology is already “broadly applied” across all of the agency’s laboratories to help improve productivity. 

Going forward and with increased funding, he laid out some of the agency’s top priorities, noting that “there's much work to be done in developing tools to provide insights into artificial intelligence programs,” and there is also “important work to be done in standardization, so that the United States can lead the world in the application of [AI] in a trustworthy and ethical manner.”

Standardization to Help the U.S. Lead in 5G

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., asked Copan to weigh in on “the moves China is making” across the fifth-generation wireless technology landscape, and the moves the U.S. needs to make to lead—not just compete—in that specific area. 

“We have entered in the United States, as we know, a hyper-competitive environment with China as a lead in activities related to standardization,” Copan responded.

The director said that officials see, in some ways, that “the standardization process has been weaponized, where the free market economy that is represented by the United States,” now needs to lead in more effective coordination internally and incentivize industry to participate in the standards process. Though U.S. officials have already seen those rules of fair play “bent or indeed broken” by other players, NIST and others need to help improve information sharing across American standards-focused stakeholders, which could, in turn, accelerate adoption around the emerging technology. 

“We want the best technologies in the world to win and we want the United States to continue to be the leader in not only delivering those technologies, but securing the intellectual properties behind them and translating those into market value,” he said.  

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