House OK's Bill to Restructure NIST

Measure Would Reduce NIST Labs, Promote Director
House OK's Bill to Restructure NIST
After two failed attempts, the House Friday approved a bill that includes provisions for the first major restructuring of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in a generation.

The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act - primarily a vehicle to fund an amalgam of engineering, research, science, technology and training programs - ran into trouble when Republicans objected to its high price tag, at one time as much as $85 billion.

To get a vote, House leaders allowed separate votes on some of its more controversial provisions, including funding for science research and job creation programs, energy independence, banning pay to federal workers caught watching pornography and prohibiting funding of college research projects if the school bans military recruiters. "We have provided all members, in a reasonable manner, with the ability to vote on each of these items separately instead of all together," bill sponsor Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn. said in a statement after its passage."

The final vote was 262 to 150.

The NIST provisions weren't part of the controversy that stalled the bill. If enacted as approved by the House, the bill would reduce to six from 10 the number of laboratories - the main research and development components at NIST - and promote the NIST director to undersecretary for standards and technology in the Department of Commerce.

The legislation essentially keeps intact the Information Technology Laboratory, the NIST unit that provides IT and cybersecurity guidance to federal agencies. In fact, the restructuring of the other labs is patterned after the interdisciplinary way the IT Lab functions.

The measure also gives the director great discretion to make additional changes to the NIST laboratory structure, provided the changes are first reported to Congress. Lawmakers, taking the advice of NIST Director Patrick Gallagher (pictured above), seek to reduce the number of labs because they see the new structure as being more efficient. "The current lab structure of 10 operating units is more than 20 years old and no longer reflects today's technology sectors or the inherent and increasing multi-disciplinary nature of technology," Rep. David Wu, the Oregon Democrat who sponsored the NIST provision, said when he proposed the NIST provisions. "This bill authorizes a lab structure of six operating units to promote efficiency and a cross-disciplinary culture at NIST."

The six labs are:

    Information Technology Laboratory, which would develop and disseminate standards, measurements and testing capabilities for interoperability, security, usability and reliability of information technologies, including cybersecurity standards and guidelines for federal agencies, American industry and the public.

    Physical Measurement Laboratory, which would realize and disseminate the national standards for length, mass, time and frequency, electricity, temperature, force and radiation.

    Engineering Laboratory, which would develop and disseminate advanced manufacturing and construction technologies to the American manufacturing and construction industries.

    Material Measurement Laboratory, which would serve as the national reference laboratory in biological, chemical and material sciences and engineering.

    Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, a national shared-use facility for nanoscale fabrication and measurement, whose mission would be to develop innovative nanoscale measurement and fabrication capabilities to support government and private-sector researchers.

    NIST Center for Neutron Research, a national shared-use facility, whose mission is to provide neutron-based measurement capabilities to researchers from industry, universities, NIST and other federal agencies.

The existing 10 NIST labs focus on developing measures and standards in building and fire research, chemical science and technology, electronics and electrical engineering, information technology, manufacturing engineering, materials science and engineering, nanoscale science and technology, neutron research, physics and technology services.

Promoting the director to undersecretary would recognize the importance of NIST as an organization aimed at driving innovation in government and business. "Elevating the director will help inject NIST expertise into the administration's discussions on innovation, standards and support for high-tech growth," Wu said.

If the Senate approves the NIST provisions, Gallagher would get an automatic promotion to undersecretary and would not need to be reconfirmed. With an undersecretary at its helm, NIST would be on equal footing with other Commerce Department entities, including the Bureau of Industry and Security, Economics and Statistics Administration, International Trade Administration, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and Patent and Trademark Office, all headed by undersecretaries.

Among other of the bill's provisions:

  • Directs the NIST director to coordinate federal government policy goals on international technical standards, which could include cybersecurity standards.
  • Requires the director to give consideration to the goal of promoting underrepresented minorities in evaluating applications for NIST fellowships for university students and post-doctoral researchers as well as special consideration applications received from teachers at high-needs schools for the NIST teacher and science technology enhancement program.
  • Clarifies that the use of cybersecurity standards and guidelines developed by NIST for industry and public would not be mandatory.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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