Congress gives NIST a clear set of priorities

Thursday - 1/6/2011, 7:16am EST

WFED's Jason Miller with Patrick Gallagher,director, NIST

Click below to hear the interview

Download mp3

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

President Obama's signature on the America Competes Reauthorization Act Tuesday doesn't just signal yet another new law on the books. Rather, it's a sign of broad-based support of specific priorities for the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

NIST Director Patrick Gallagher said the provisions in the new law send a signal of what are important areas, including green buildings and construction, innovative manufacturing and emergency communications and tracking technologies, that lawmakers and the administration want the agency to focus on over the next year.

"In most cases this is not new programmatic activity, but it is giving a boost to things we already are doing," Gallagher said in an interview with Federal News Radio. "The America Competes Act is our authorization bill and it sets out the authorities that govern what the agency does. It's critically important because it specifically reauthorizes NIST to do all our mission activities, including the levels of funding for major programs and fine tunes specific authorities around programs."

Along with NIST, the law details new programs and responsibilities for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

"It authorizes the continued growth of the budgets of three key agencies that are incubating and generating the breakthroughs of tomorrow-the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the laboratories of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation. COMPETES also bolsters this Administration's already groundbreaking activities to enhance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education-to raise American students from the middle to the top of the pack and to make sure we are training the next generation of innovative thinkers and doers," wrote John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of OSTP in a blog post late last year when the bill cleared Congress.

Holdren said the law authorizes ongoing support for ARPA-E, the energy-research program modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which focuses on technologies to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign energy sources and stimulate a green economy.

The law also gives every department and agency the authority to conduct prize competitions. Holdren said prizes and challenges have "an excellent track record of accelerating problem-solving by tapping America's top talent and best expertise wherever it may lie."

The major change for NIST actually comes for Gallagher himself.

Under the law, Gallagher's title changes from director to undersecretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology.

"The major benefit of the title change is that it elevates the importance of position," Gallagher said, also joking that his business card will grow at least one line longer as well. "It gives you more leeway in taking a seat at important policy discussions, but it's not fundamental change in my position."

Gallagher wasn't even sure Congress would pass the bill during the end of the year session.

He said with so many other bills on tap, it seemed unlikely the America Competes Act would rise to the top.

"I was pleasantly surprised it got through," he said.

The law doesn't include changes to how NIST organizes its labs. Previous versions of the legislation detailed how the agency should revamp its labs.

Gallagher said part of the reason the law doesn't include the lab reorganization provision is because NIST already completed the changes.

He said as of Oct. 1 NIST replaced a single deputy director with three associate directors with responsibilities over the major program components.

The agency also realigned its laboratory structure from 10 discipline-based labs into 6 mission-based labs focused on:

  • Engineering

  • Physical measurement

  • Information technology

  • Material measurement

  • Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology

  • NIST Center for Neutron Research

NIST received some push back over its plans to reorganize its IT lab earlier last year. But in the end, it didn't make major changes to one of its most high-profiled offices.

Now that the reorganization is mostly completed, Gallagher said NIST is focusing on the next set of priorities for 2011.

He said among the agency's top goal is to promote a secure IT infrastructure across the country, expand the use of cloud computing, help enable trusted interaction on the Internet between citizens and businesses, and promote innovative manufacturing for large and small businesses alike.

"If innovation is seedcorn of economic growth, you don't reap the full benefit of innovation without taking ideas into products and that magic occurs in manufacturing and advanced manufacturing is an area that is right in middle of what NIST is suppose to support," he said.

(Copyright 2011 by FederalNewsRadio.com. All Rights Reserved.)