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National Institute of Standards and Technology

In blistering letter, Democrats demand answers on controversial appointee to U.S. standards agency

The new second-in-command at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is unfit for the job, say top Democrats on an influential congressional science panel.

In a scalding letter yesterday to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees NIST, Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Haley Stevens (D–MI) assert that Jason Richwine holds “beliefs and actions [that] are plainly disqualifying from federal service.” The lawmakers, who chair the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and its research subcommittee, respectively, also argue that Richwine’s “educational and professional background are plainly inadequate for carrying out the responsibilities of senior leadership at NIST.” They ask Ross to answer a series of questions about the newly created position, including who authorized it, within 2 weeks.

Richwine, an independent public policy scholar, began his new job as deputy undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology (DUS) on 9 November. The science committee’s opposition to the appointment is based on what it describes as his “anachronistic IQ-based ranking of races in order to support his anti-immigration beliefs, leaning on debunked pseudoscience that has been used for centuries to justify colonialism, slavery, and segregation.”

Richwine is a political appointee, and his hiring was presumably orchestrated by White House officials serving out the waning days of the Trump administration. As such, Richwine appears unlikely to survive once President-elect Joe Biden takes office on 20 January 2021.

However, on Monday Ross signed an administrative order that increased anxiety among scientists. It designates the DUS as the successor to the NIST director, Walter Copan, should Copan be fired or leave. Under the previous policy, the associate director for laboratory operations—a career federal employee, not a political appointee—was next in line. That position is held by James Olthoff, a Ph.D. physicist who joined NIST in 1987.

In a virtual town hall yesterday, Copan told NIST employees that Richwine would be overseeing an unspecified set of “special projects” and that he would be in line to succeed him. Copan also revealed that Brian Lenihan has been named special adviser to the director. A former lobbyist for the building trades and an aide to congressional Republicans, Lenihan has spent the past year overseeing manufacturing initiatives within the Department of Commerce’s office of international trade.

The arrival of Richwine and Lenihan doubles the previous number of political appointees at NIST. The science committee’s letter pointedly asks Ross to justify that increased political oversight of an agency that revels in its reputation as a nonpartisan research operation with a main campus in suburban Maryland and a world-class research facility in Boulder, Colorado.

“Who made the decision to create the new Deputy Undersecretary position?” the letter asks. “Did the Department conduct any analysis to support the requirement for a new Deputy Undersecretary position prior to establishing it?” The lawmakers also want to know what criteria commerce officials used to determine Richwine’s “suitability for the position.”

The committee has asked for answers within the next 2 weeks. The Commerce Department has not responded to repeated queries from ScienceInsider.