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The Jump from Airborne to NIST

Selfie of John Bittman while deployed in the U.S. military
Credit: John Bittman

by John Bittman, Interagency Policy Specialist

I never expected the knowledge, skills, or abilities I gained as an airborne infantryman to be very transferrable upon my discharge. How could knowing the specifications of an M240 machine gun, the performance measures of battle drills like clearing trenches, sketching range cards with intersecting fields of fire, or being well versed in aerial operations come in handy for any but the smallest fractions of jobs on this planet? When the whole purpose of your job is to get thrown directly at the chaos behind enemy lines, you inevitably gain some soft skills like keeping cool under pressure, working effectively in a team and thriving as an underdog. As luck would have it, though, I fell into a career needing some of that same paratrooper temperament. I became an interagency policy specialist at NIST where I convene intramural personnel, conduct outreach to commercialization stakeholders and assist in program and policy formulation on behalf of the interagency technology transfer community.

NIST plays an oversized role when it comes to technology transfer (T2). While several departments and agencies across the federal government command greater research and development (R&D) resources, produce more collaborations and/or license more technologies, NIST is the recipient of unique responsibilities when it comes to leading government wide T2 policy initiatives. This is where the small interagency team in the Technology Partnerships Office (TPO) comes in. Every day, we work closely with our colleagues at other agencies (T2 professionals, lawyers, leadership, etc.) to share best practices, address systemic challenges, explore questions, implement policy changes and conduct outreach surrounding federal T2 in support of the following efforts:

Presidential Initiatives

The Director of NIST, Dr. Walter Copan, co-leads the Lab-to-Market Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goal within the President’s Management Agenda and receives support from TPO’s interagency team. The Lab-to-Market CAP Goal aims to coordinate across federal agencies to improve the transition of federally funded innovations out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. CAP Goal teams report quarterly progress on and NIST is responsible for coordinating this important public transparency effort.  

NIST also co-chairs the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC) Lab-to-Market subcommittee. NSTC coordinates across federal agencies to prepare research and development strategies to accomplish scientific and technology commercialization goals through six primary committees and numerous subcommittees. Acting Director of TPO Dr. Courtney Silverthorn performs the co-chair duties and I help support the subcommittee as executive secretary.

Intramural T2 Policy

Starting with the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act of 1980, Congress has passed several pieces of legislation to promote T2 on the federal level. For instance, federal agencies are legislatively mandated to submit an annual report of T2 program activities, plans and metrics to NIST TPO. This information is compiled into one cross-government report that gets sent to the president and Congress as mandated in 15 U.S.C. 3710 (g).

Presidents have also used executive orders to improve intramural T2. Executive Order 12591 first created an interagency task force in 1987 to report on the progress and problems of the federal T2 effort. That work continues today through the Interagency Working Group on Technology Transfer. This cross-government group of T2 experts is convened by the NIST interagency team quarterly to operate in the intramural reporting and advising roles described in 15 U.S.C. 3710 (g) and 35 U.S.C. 207 (b).

Extramural T2 Policy

The director of NIST is delegated, by the secretary of the Department of Commerce, the authority to issue implementing regulations for the Bayh-Dole Act, which authorizes a recipient of federal funding to retain the rights to their inventions and outlines responsibilities they must fulfill in doing so. TPO undertakes the extensive rulemaking process that includes convening the Interagency Working Group on Bayh-Dole, working closely with legal counsel on drafting Notices of Proposed Rulemaking to the Federal Register, holding public meetings in-person and/or online, receiving and adjudicating comments from  stakeholders and hoping it all culminates in a published final rule

NIST also serves the federal R&D funding enterprise through overseeing the development of a new interagency Edison (iEdison) system for complying with the requirements of the Bayh-Dole Act. Originally created and maintained by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1995, NIST accepted the responsibility of carrying on the legacy of innovation and service by NIH, while pushing forward to build a more modern reporting system to better facilitate interactions between federal funding agencies and R&D organizations.

The Federal Laboratory Consortium

Formally chartered by the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986, the Federal Laboratory Consortium

(FLC) is a quasi-governmental body devoted to promoting, educating and facilitating federal T2.  Membership consists of representatives from federal agencies and laboratories with NIST operating as the host agency. NIST represents FLC with at least one member on the executive board and provides the FLC with reimbursable administrative and support services.  As mandated in in 15 U.S.C. § 3710 (e), NIST administers funding assessments from federal agencies for use by the FLC in carrying out its directed activities.

NIST Initiatives

The interagency team in TPO also supports several NIST directed T2 efforts.  For instance, the Return on Investment Initiative Green Paper was published in 2019 to inform future deliberations and outline possible actions that could maximize the return on taxpayer investment in federally funded R&D. TPO also holds several technology sector-based events throughout the year designed to connect regional commercialization stakeholders.

In Conclusion...

From researching, drafting, or implementing policy; to building, maintaining and convening networks with T2 colleagues across the federal agencies and directing outreach and education around the country, the day of an interagency policy specialist can vary wildly and is well-suited to those with enough reckless abandonment to jump out of perfectly good aircraft.  

Released June 2, 2020, Updated June 29, 2020