Cybersecurity and technology transfer seen as top priorities for NIST director nominee

President Donald Trump has nominated Walter Copan, an expert in technology transfer, to be the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which supports physical sciences research and operates labs in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado.

The 63-year-old Copan is a Ph.D. chemist and president and CEO of the Colorado-based Intellectual Property Engineering Group. He says his top priority for the agency is to implement the Cybersecurity Framework, a NIST-led effort to improve network security across federal agencies as well as industry.

“I think we all see cybersecurity as national security and economic security,” Copan says. He also wants to make sure security improvements benefit not just federal agencies and large corporations, but also smaller companies that can’t afford teams of information technology professionals. “Small- and medium-sized businesses are drivers of the economy. Statistics show that when [these businesses] are the victim of a cyberattack they go out of business in less than a year,” Copan says.

Copan says he hopes to improve how small companies interact with government agencies to commercialize new technologies. “My personal priority is to find better ways [of] engaging with industry and finding partnerships.”

Walter Copan

Courtesy of Walter Copan

Technology transfer was his priority during stints at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. While at Brookhaven, Copan spearheaded a pilot program across the Department of Energy (DOE) called Agreements for Commercializing Technology. The program has been praised for making intellectual property agreements between businesses and DOE more flexible, and for promoting an entrepreneurial culture.

That has made Copan’s nomination a popular choice. “I think it’s a great selection,” says Richard Rankin, director of innovation and partnerships at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, one of three DOE weapons laboratories. Catherine Sohn, nonexecutive chairperson of BioEclipse Therapeutics in Milpitas, California, praises Copan’s work with the Licensing Executive Society, a group of intellectual property professionals. “I … found him to be an inspiring, visionary leader with a keen understanding of the importance of advancing and protecting intellectual property,” she says.

Copan’s nomination was sent to the Senate on 14 September. If confirmed, he will replace Kent Rochford. He has served as NIST’s acting director since Willie May retired in January, although his permanent position is running the agency’s laboratory programs. Copan would also become undersecretary of commerce and technology within the Department of Commerce, NIST’s parent agency.

Another priority for the next NIST director will be defending the agency’s budget. The Trump administration proposed a 24% overall cut for the 2018 fiscal year that starts next month, and a 13% cut for the agency’s seven research labs. NIST’s budget will remain at its current level until mid-December under a government-wide spending freeze, and it appears likely that Congress will soften the blow for 2018. But even in the Senate, where appropriators have been most supportive, the agency is slated for a slight funding decrease.

“There have been some shots across the bow that sent shock waves through the science community,” Copan says. But he is confident that Congress will recognize NIST’s role in promoting U.S. manufacturing and standards that promote growth. “We’re talking about U.S. jobs here,” he says.

As for the upcoming spending battles, Copan admits: “I am not relishing being in the political fray. But I believe I’m ready for it.”