Lawmakers push back on NIST budget cut

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The administration's proposed steep budget cuts to the government's research and innovation arm for artificial intelligence, quantum science and cybersecurity generated concerns among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The fiscal year 2020 request for the National Institute of Standards and Technology proposed about $611.7 million for scientific and technical research, compared to the $724.5 million passed for fiscal year 2019.

The proposed deep cut to the agency comes as the White House has emphasized advancement on AI and quantum science, areas core to NIST's research.

"To say this budget is disappointing would be an understatement," House Science, Space and Transportation Subcommittee on Research and Technology Chairwoman Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) said.

NIST Director Walter Copan acknowledged that "the budget request for NIST is a significant reduction from previous levels."

"The budget proposal is the beginning of the journey," he said. "We count on the brilliance of Congress to work on budget issues."

Republicans on the committee raised issue with some of the budget cuts, as well. "My concern when I look at the budget is I'm worried we're maybe pulling back when should be pressing forward on some of these cutting-edge technologies," Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) said.

Copan did point out that despite the steep cut in the research area, as well as for the agency overall, the budget does propose slight upticks -- about $10 million -- in the accounts for the acceleration of both quantum and microelectronics development, plus another $8 million for AI research.

Even with these bumps, Stevens said, "the current budget doesn't do enough" in the areas of AI and the internet of things. The budget, she pointed out, also proposes cutting more than $90 million to NIST's laboratory programs.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) objected to the proposal to shutter NIST's $15 million centers of excellence program and questioned the impact of proposed personnel budget cuts on the workforce.

"It does create challenges certainly," Copan said, adding that the workforce "look[s] 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."

The budget also proposes a steep cut to the construction of NIST facilities. Copan told lawmakers that he hopes NIST can carry out "a creative financing approach" through the proposed Federal Capital Revolving Fund housed by the General Services Administration to pay for investment in civilian infrastructure.

Copan also updated lawmakers on the data privacy framework, which he called a "key area of NIST's focus recently."

Copan said the agency is using the cybersecurity framework as a model, and the next step in the data privacy framework's development is a "follow-on workshop" on the feedback provided by industry. It is slated for May, rescheduled from its original February date because of the shutdown.

"We're looking to make a lot of progress this year, and we're anticipating a working draft of this framework for public feedback within the next several months," he said.

On the other side of Congress, senators shared similar feelings about the White House's proposed cuts.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee with jurisdiction over NIST, said at a recent hearing he was "concerned" about what the proposed cuts would entail for research and development.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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