On Sept. 12, President Trump nominated Walter Copan to be director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. FYI spoke with Copan, a scientist who has dedicated much of his career to facilitating technology transfer between the public and private sectors, about why he is interested in the role and his initial vision for the agency.
On Sept. 12, President Trump nominated Walter Copan, a technology transfer expert who holds a doctorate in physical chemistry, for the role of undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology. The position primarily involves directing the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a nearly $1 billion agency within the Department of Commerce responsible for advancing measurement science, standards, and technology.
FYI interviewed Copan last week about his background and his vision for the agency.
Copan stresses apolitical nature of NIST
Copan recounted that discussions about his potential nomination began toward the end of 2016, and he remarked that the process had been apolitical, reflecting the nature of the agency:
People would have been happy whether I was a Republican or Democrat in terms of orientation, but the beauty of NIST is that it’s really not a political role at all. It’s a science role. It’s focused on supporting the U.S. economy. … You’ll see from my background that I do not carry political stripes, and I believe that is a good thing because NIST is truly America first. There’s absolutely not a partisan aspect of NIST in any way, shape, or form.
Copan acknowledged that the nomination process has been drawn out, but indicated that he expects the pace to pick up. “[The process] has been slow, it’s fair to say — here we are in September — but I must say that the administration sees the importance now of filling senior science slots, and making sure that these organizations have the kind of stability and leadership that is necessary,” he said.
If confirmed, Copan will take over leadership of NIST from Kent Rochford, who has served as acting director since Willie May stepped down on Jan. 4. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will consider his nomination before it moves to a vote by the full Senate. A staff member for the committee said that it may hold a hearing on his nomination as early as Sept. 27.
Copan expects his nomination will not be controversial. “It looks like it’s going to be a very rapid pathway to confirmation,” he said.
Attracted by NIST’s convening power and tech transfer role
Copan said that to date his interactions with NIST have been “more periodic than constant,” but stressed that he has a deep appreciation for agency.
“First and foremost, I’m a firm believer in the mission of NIST and its importance to the nation. Even from the days of the U.S. Constitution, from the founding fathers of the nation, they saw the importance of standards as an enabler to U.S. economic growth,” he said.
“I really saw the importance of NIST in providing unbiased information to industry and to stakeholders to standards organizations from the time that I started in 1975 in my professional career,” he added. “I really developed a high degree of respect for the people, for the strength of the science, and for the convening power of NIST, the way in which the organization brings together stakeholders from industry, academia, the federal sector, industry associations, and nonprofits.”
Copan emphasized his interest in this convening role, saying, “The way that NIST really leverages its budget and resources through partnerships with the private sector and in close, working collaboration across the entire federal complex is very, very appealing to me.”
Copan also expressed a special interest in NIST’s technology transfer-related responsibilities, highlighting the agency’s role in assessing technology transfer practices and outcomes across the federal government.
“The technology transfer role that NIST plays on behalf of the Congress and all the federal complex was particularly important for me as someone who has been involved in the world of innovation and tech transfer over many years,” he said.
Long career in industry, stints at national labs
Currently president and CEO of the IP Engineering Group Corporation in Colorado, Copan has held a number of positions in industry and federal laboratories over his career.
Copan received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Case Western Reserve University in 1982 while on leave from the Lubrizol Corporation, a specialty chemicals company, where he served in a variety of roles from 1975 to 2003. He went on to work at two Department of Energy national laboratories, serving as a principal licensing executive at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory from 2003 to 2005 and as managing director of technology commercialization and partnerships at Brookhaven National Laboratory from 2010 to 2013.
Copan highlighted his efforts to make the DOE labs into a “more business friendly place.” He pointed to his cofounding of Accelerate Long Island as an example of his efforts to facilitate interactions between Brookhaven and local businesses and entrepreneurs.
While at Brookhaven, Copan also led the development and implementation of the Agreement for Commercializing Technology (ACT), which he said was the first new technology transfer mechanism introduced at DOE in over 25 years. Copan said that ACT was born out of a desire to make the contracting process less onerous and allow the labs to negotiate more business-friendly terms.
Copan said he looks forward to continuing to interact with DOE, citing NIST’s work on developing high intensity beamline capabilities for the National Synchrotron Light Source-II at Brookhaven. He also stressed his belief in the value of federal investment in such user facilities, saying,
I really honor … the whole concept of user facilities developed primarily through the government investment, but then made available to a wide range of users from academia, industry, and other parts of the federal complex. To me, that’s a great example of leverage for maximum return on investment in the federal laboratories world. I use that term ‘return on investment’ as somebody who looks at things from a business angle as well.
Expects business background will help him navigate tough budget environment
Copan is slated to lead NIST as it grapples with the possibility of deep budget cuts. The Trump administration has proposed cutting NIST’s core research program by 13 percent and its industrial technology services program by 86 percent. The House and Senate appropriations bills propose less steep cuts, although several accounts could still see significant reductions.
Asked how he would convey the value of NIST to Congress in a tough budget environment, Copan stressed his business background.
“I think that a NIST leader who also speaks the language of industry and who speaks the language of the finance community will be appreciated as a spokesperson for NIST on the Hill,” he said, but also stressed that he “understands sometimes return on investment from science has a longer-term perspective rather than just the time perspective of quarterly reporting on Wall Street.”
Copan again spoke of return on investment in the context of NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, which the Trump administration has proposed eliminating:
It’s important for the U.S. taxpayer to see a return on investment of taxpayer funds in ways that are meaningful to the taxpayer. I was so pleased to see the analysis recently of the NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership program. … It analyzed the number of taxpayer dollars that went into the program and then the direct payroll tax, that is the federal income tax, that was received as a direct output of those programs that were touched by the NIST MEP … Dollar in, dollar back to the federal treasury, the ratio was over eight to one. … I like measurements like that.
Tech transfer and cybersecurity among priorities
Asked about his priorities for NIST, Copan highlighted areas such as expanding the agency’s technology transfer role, increasing its capabilities in the biological sciences, and helping businesses improve their cybersecurity practices.
He said he is excited to “look to expand the technology transfer reach of the NIST organization and indeed of the federal complex itself.” Copan also emphasized the importance of NIST’s growing cybersecurity responsibilities, such as its development of a cybersecurity risk management framework.
“We have, I believe, a call to action now in this country and with NIST at the center,” Copan said after alluding to recent cybersecurity breaches such as the hack of the credit reporting agency Equifax. “I believe that NIST has an obligation based on the really wonderful work that has already been done in the cybersecurity framework development to now look at its broad implementation, deployment, quality assessment.”
In summary, NIST needs to maintain its scientific capacity and scientific integrity. NIST has aging facilities and needs to continually revitalize them. In a challenging budget scenario, we have to be have to be creative about how we solve some of these problems, but they are not insoluble. … We need to have this science-based measurements organization strong and nimble to address the challenges of America and our industrial base, our business base, and our technology base as it continues to evolve in an increasingly competitive global climate.