Capitol Corner — February 2019

Published monthly as part of the FLC’s DC Perspective content, Capitol Corner focuses on one notable news item pertaining to the T2 community. The focus stems from agency publications, news sites, and DC-central organizations, with original sources, contacts, and links provided. For more information and Corner-related inquiries, please contact dcnews@federallabs.org.


Last week, we reported on the debut of the American Artificial Intelligence (AI) Initiative, which outlined basic policies for ensuring continued dominance in leading AI research and development (R&D) and practical application. The news, which was issued in a memo by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), coincided with the swearing-in of the OSTP’s director, Kelvin Droegemeier.

Droegemeier was confirmed by President Trump to lead OSTP in August. We reported that he served on a variety of R&D task forces under President George W. Bush. Each of these coalitions—including those on research cost-sharing and mid-scale research facilities—align with R&D initiatives he described in his first address as agency director. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), he formed a list of policy priorities, several of which are in line with his R&D-centric career.

Remarks centered around three central policy pillars, which tie into our previous coverage. This Capitol Corner will report on those pillars and link to our ongoing coverage of where the U.S.—at both the agency and national levels—is working toward these goals in recent months.

1. American R&D ecosystems need to be recontextualized. Droegemeier suggested that each portion of the R&D enterprise—the private sector, academia, and nonprofit organizations—need to be examined more closely. His example for the recontextualization of R&D ties into AI research, asking about the technology’s future demand and current assets to generate progress. In regard to AI development, several initiatives (in addition to the federal AI Initiative’s foundation) have been in process across the enterprise.

With respect to the private sector, the previous OSTP director, Michael Kratsios, founded an interagency committee within the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). Established last May, the select committee aims to advise the White House on government AI R&D and establish relationships between the private and public sectors, as well as independent research teams. This committee has recently requested input for its legacy National AI R&D Strategic Plan, published in 2016. Whether or not this dovetails into the American AI Initiative is unknown, although the request was issued in August. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) also has begun work with AI experts to streamline patent application processes—one of the many practical implementations of this next-generation technology.

2. Alpha Institutes will be chartered to begin innovative partnerships. In 1956, Bell Labs developed the first transistor semiconductors after nine years of piloting in its state-of-the-art laboratory. In Droegemeier’s remarks, he used this historical example to launch his vision for Alpha Institutes. These Institutes—potentially anchored at universities and other academic centers—would “pursue absolutely transformational ideas on the biggest challenges that face humanity today, like space exploration, climate change, eradicating disease and making it possible for people to live longer and healthier lives.”

While not explicitly tied to Droegemeier’s highlighted challenges, the OSTP and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) placed emphasis on academic centers to “boosting American sources of clean, affordable, and reliable energy begins with the investment in, and subsequent adoption of, next-generation energy technologies.” This August energy initiative was linked to its annual Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, which outlined R&D budget priorities for fiscal year (FY) 2020. Whether or not Alpha Institutes will update this year’s Memorandum with more guidance will be interesting to see.

3. Ensure American research environments are safe, secure, and, welcoming. While we haven’t previously covered the issue of harassment in research communities, there have been strides toward a different type of welcoming—diversity initiatives in research and the STEM education circuit. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has its INCLUDES network, which issued six awards in November for projects to investigate diversity disparities in STEM education and workforce development. INCLUDES was one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas. INCLUDES programs have previously been chartered to establish STEM professional development pathways and ensure that minorities and those with disabilities are broadening participation in STEM programs and workforce sectors. Droegemeier’s third pillar is an important one—If it works in tandem with diversity initiatives, STEM participation and workforce depth may improve for future generations and technological developments.

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