NIST’s emerging tech work will be ‘very difficult’ without sustained funding, director says

NIST's administration building on the agency's Gaithersburg, Md. campus.

NIST's administration building on the agency's Gaithersburg, Md. campus. NIST photo by Robert Rathe

Testifying before a House committee, NIST Director Laurie Locascio highlighted her agency’s ongoing work while making clear the need for more funding.

Leadership at the National Institute of Standards and Technology testifying before members of Congress Wednesday reiterated its commitment to research priorities in emerging technologies, particularly artificial intelligence and quantum information sciences, in the forthcoming 2025 fiscal year as the agency is tasked with a workload critical to national security. 

During a hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, NIST Director Laurie Locascio touched on multiple topics NIST plans to prioritize in the coming year but underscored the need for more consistent and greater federal funding. 

“We definitely are working as hard as we can to do what we can with the money that we have,” Locascio said. “We can do more with more.”

NIST faced a “devastating” fiscal year 2024 budget cut by 10% from the previous year, according to Rep Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. The agency is currently requesting just under $1.5 billion for FY25, a nearly 8% decrease from this year’s total, according to the agency’s submission to Congress. Itemized, this figure parcels out $50 million for specific mandates assigned to NIST by President Joe Biden’s AI Executive Order, and an increase of $13.9 million for quantum information sciences, particularly for standardization, cryptography and application efforts.

Among the research areas NIST planned to focus on, the subject of harmonizing standards for emerging technologies — such as securing data stored on traditional computers from potential future threats posed by quantum computing through quantum-resistant cryptography — was frequently discussed during the hearing. 

“We are on track for delivering the first standards in the summer of this year,” Locasio said. “We're working with large companies and small companies to try to make sure that implementation can also happen very, very quickly once the post quantum cryptography standards are developed and out there.”

Locascio also said that the agency is planning to make a host of new announcements regarding early research opportunities within entities like NIST’s National Semiconductor Technology Center. 

As outlined in a strategic vision released Tuesday, NIST will also advance the objectives within its AI Safety Institute, including developing more robust and universal metrics to gauge the safety and efficacy of a given AI system. Locascio told lawmakers that NIST asked for supplementary funding to help support AISI operations while not detracting from other AI research efforts like implementing the AI Risk Management Framework and related measurement science work.

“We have $6 million dollars that we are spending on the AI Safety Institute, as well as the funding that we're spending on the NIST laboratory research” she said. “I will say that when we had to prioritize, it's going to be very, very tough moving forward if we don't get additional funding for the AI Center.”

Budget cuts have already hampered the agency’s ability to work on standards development for electric vehicles and biological clinical technologies. 

Locascio also noted that further budget cuts stand to hinder the ongoing AI work NIST is undertaking.

“It's a big job that we were asked to do for the country for AI, right, it's a new job,” she said. “It's very difficult to do that very big job for the country…if we cannot fund it, if we cannot get the funding to do what we have to do.”

Despite budget cuts to NIST in previous appropriations legislation, lawmakers have increasingly voiced support for the standards agency to be granted sufficient financial backing to execute its wide array of research. 

During the hearing, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., requested the National Academies develop a report to investigate the “urgent need” for sustaining funding for NIST to continue research and development leadership in emerging technologies. 

“Congress has continued to task this with high profile responsibilities, but we have failed to provide the agency with the resources that it needs,” Bonamici said. 

Prior to this hearing, a cohort of senators submitted a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee requesting increased funding for NIST’s AI-centric work.