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When Universities and the Federal Government Collaborate to Build the Future

A key strength of our country has been a highly trained set of researchers and technicians who work in scientific agencies of the government (e.g., National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, the national laboratories, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), performing both basic and translational research. These agencies form a key component of an ecosystem of advanced research – universities, private sector biopharmaceutical, biotechnology, and information firms, as well as nonprofit research organizations. Over the second half of the 20th century, this ecosystem created unparalleled discoveries that led to applications that transformed society. While the public is bombarded each day with the application of those discoveries (e.g., generative artificial intelligence, the latest mobile phone), it is not frequently reminded that those applications could not exist without the basic outputs of this ecosystem.

Over the past few years, a slow crisis has emerged in the scientific and technical infrastructure of the Federal government. The core scientific staff are growing older. Declining public trust in institutions has dampened the attraction of working in these agencies. Staff shortages are common. Support for their agenda, as manifested through budgets, has been threatened.

Georgetown, as an institution that matured as the nation matured, has consistently played a special role in supporting government institutions. Its graduates disproportionately devote their careers to missions aligned with these institutions, sometimes as leaders within them, sometimes as external allies. Its location in DC enhances its ability to help rebuild the staff of federal agencies, especially required at this moment in history.

This week witnessed a special advance in Georgetown’s service to the nation. A group of colleagues, led by Professor Peter Olmsted, was awarded a cooperative agreement with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), amounting to as much as $21 million over several years. The purpose of the award is to provide valuable laboratory experience and financial assistance to undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty. The program is intended to assure continued growth and progress of a highly skilled science, technology, engineering, math workforce in the United States. In that sense, NIST has serves goals beyond its own staffing, to enrich the full ecosystem of science.

Under the agreement, Georgetown collaborates with NIST in identifying new scientific talent, administering their employment as Georgetown staff, while they work with and in NIST laboratories. They can include Georgetown undergraduate and graduate students working part-time at NIST, PhD students and postdoctoral fellows working on NIST/Georgetown projects, postdoctoral fellows working on NIST projects not connected to Georgetown, scientists with bachelors or masters degrees working at NIST, and senior scientists working at NIST (e.g. sabbatical visitors). Thus, some, but not all, of these staff have synergies with research programs ongoing at Georgetown.

Through programs like this, Georgetown again serves the nation for the common good. Over the years, it will offer unique experiences to scientists, both those starting their careers and those at their prime. It will thereby strengthen the ecosystem of government and academic institutions, by giving those in academia experience inside a government scientific organization.

Congratulations to our Georgetown colleagues for taking the initiative to acquire this new resource for Georgetown!

8 thoughts on “When Universities and the Federal Government Collaborate to Build the Future

  1. I am afraid this is going to sound a little naive, but there seems to me good reason for universities sometimes to become concerned when they come too close to the federal government. For one thing, not everything any government does is worthy of high praise — or support. In the case of Georgetown, which represents itself as a Catholic university, such a consideration may be even more necessary, since there are imperatives other than governmental to which we set our hand. I understand the reason for and perhaps even the necessity of the Provost’s Blog, but these matters, which seem so evident at first, can become really quite complicated.

    • Interesting all grants at least in medicine are reviewed at least in part in relation to georgetown standards for peer review and ethical issues. Is that the same for Law and main campus? Those Calls into question iOur scientific and ethical standards for compliance with our values! Just wondering.

      • Ps. We do have world renowned Centers for bioethics that routinely deals with such complicated issues. In fact Dr Pellegrino wrote the premier textbook on medical ethics. Thoughts?

    • Hi John –

      I agree that one needs to take care about choosing which horse to back from so many government agencies that surround us.

      In this case NIST’s mission has a lot of overlaps with Georgetown’s aims. Specifically, NIST sits between academia and industry to develop standards and methods so that industry works effectively for society’s benefit

      A few recent NIST projects in this area have included a scientific team working on the causes of the building collapse in Florida, research into how artificial intelligence and automation influences the nature of work and industry, recycling of plastics, quantifying the amount and impact of toxic chemicals in the environment. There are many others.

      I’d be happy to discuss this with you off line if you like!

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