Emerging Technology
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A NIST Foundation to Support the Agency’s AI Mandate

06.24.24 | 9 min read | Text by Aleksandra Srdanovic

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) faces several obstacles to advancing its mission on artificial intelligence (AI) at a time when the field is rapidly advancing and consequences for falling short are wide-reaching. To enable NIST to quickly and effectively respond, Congress should authorize the establishment of a NIST Foundation to unlock additional resources, expertise, flexible funding mechanisms, and innovation, while ensuring the foundation is stood up with strong ethics and oversight mechanisms.


The rapid advancement of AI presents unprecedented opportunities and complex challenges as it is increasingly integrated into the way that we work and live. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an agency within the Department of Commerce, plays an important role in advancing AI-related research, measurement, evaluation, and technical standard setting. NIST has recently been given responsibilities under President Biden’s October 30, 2023, Executive Order (EO) on Safe, Security, and Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence. To support the implementation of the EO, NIST launched an AI Safety Institute (AISI), created an AI Safety Institute Consortium (AISIC), and released a strategic vision for AISI focused on safe and responsible AI innovation, among other actions.

While work is underway to implement Biden’s AI EO and deliver on NIST’s broader AI mandate, NIST faces persistent obstacles in its ability to quickly and effectively respond. For example, recent legislation like the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 has set discretionary spending limits for FY26 through FY29, which means less funding is available to support NIST’s programs. Even before this, NIST’s funding has remained at a fractional level (around $1–1.3 billion each year) of the industries it is supposed to set standards for. Since FY22, NIST has received lower appropriations than it has requested.

In addition, NIST is struggling to attract the specialized science and technology (S&T) talent that it needs due to competition for technical talent, a lack of competitive pay compared to the private sector, a gender-imbalanced culture, and issues with transferring institutional knowledge when individuals transition out of the agency, according to a February 2023 Government Accountability Office report. Alongside this, NIST has limitations on how it can work with the private sector and is subject to procurement processes that can be a barrier to innovation, an issue the agency has struggled with in years past, according to a September 2005 Inspector General report.

The consequences of NIST not fulfilling its mandate on AI due to these challenges and limitations are wide-reaching: a lack of uniform AI standards across platforms and countries; reduced AI trust and security; limitations on AI innovation and commercialization; and the United States losing its place as a leading international voice on AI standards and governance, giving the Chinese government and companies a competitive edge as they seek to become a world leader in artificial intelligence.


An agency-related foundation could play a crucial role in addressing these challenges and strengthening NIST’s AI mission. Agency-related nonprofit research foundations and corporations have long been used to support the research and development (R&D) mandates of federal agencies by enabling them to quickly respond to challenges and leverage additional resources, expertise, flexible funding mechanisms, and innovation from the private sector to support service delivery and the achievement of agency programmatic goals more efficiently and effectively.

One example is the CDC Foundation. In 1992, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of the CDC Foundation, an independent, 501(c)(3) public charity that supports the mandate of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by facilitating strategic partnerships between the CDC and the philanthropic community and leveraging private-sector funds from individuals, philanthropies, and corporations. The CDC is legally able to capitalize on these private sector funds through two mechanisms: (1) Section 231 of the Public Health Service Act, which authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services “to accept on behalf of the United States gifts made unconditionally by will or otherwise for the benefit of the Service or for the carrying out of any of its functions,” and (2) the legislation that authorized the creation of the CDC Foundation, which establishes its governance structure and provides the CDC director the authority to accept funds and voluntary services from the foundation to aid and facilitate the CDC’s work. 

Since 1995, the CDC Foundation has raised $2.2 billion to support 1,400 public health programs in the United States and worldwide. The importance of this model was evident at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when the CDC Foundation supported the Centers by quickly raising  to deploy various resources supporting communities. In the same way that the CDC Foundation bolstered the CDC’s work during the greatest public health challenge in 100 years, a foundation model could be critical in helping an agency like NIST deploy private, philanthropic funds from an independent source to quickly respond to the challenge and opportunity of AI’s advancement.

Another example of an agency-related entity is the newly established Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation (FESI), authorized by Congress via the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act following years of community advocacy to support the mission of the Department of Energy (DOE) in advancing energy technologies and promoting energy security. FESI released a Request for Information in February 2023 to seek input on DOE engagement opportunities with FESI and appointed its inaugural board of directors in May 2024.

NIST itself has demonstrated interest in the potential for expanded partnership mechanisms such as an agency-related foundation. In its 2019 report, the agency notes that “foundations have the potential to advance the accomplishment of agency missions by attracting private sector investment to accelerate technology maturation, transfer, and commercialization of an agency’s R&D outcomes.” NIST is uniquely suited to benefit from an agency-related foundation and its partnership flexibilities, given that it works on behalf of, and in collaboration with, industry on R&D and to develop standards, measurements, regulations, and guidance.

But how could NIST actually leverage a foundation model? A June 2024 paper from the Institute for Progress presents ideas for how a foundation model could support NIST’s work on AI and emerging tech. These include setting up a technical fellowship program that can compete with formidable companies in the AI space for top talent; quickly raising money and deploying resources to conduct “rapid capability evaluations for the risks and benefits of new AI systems”; and hosting large-scale prize competitions to develop “complex capabilities benchmarks for artificial intelligence” that would not be subject to usual monetary limitations and procedural burdens.

A NIST Foundation, of course, would have implications for the agency’s work beyond AI and other emerging technologies. Interviews with experts at the Federation of American Scientists working across various S&T domains have revealed additional use cases for a NIST Foundation that map to the agency’s topical areas, including but not limited to: 

Critical to the success of a foundation model is for it to have the funding needed to support NIST’s mission and programs. While it is difficult to estimate exactly how much funding a NIST Foundation could draw in from external sources, there is clearly significant appetite from philanthropy to invest in AI research and initiatives. Reporting from Inside Philanthropy uncovered that some of the biggest philanthropic institutions and individual donors—such as Eric and Wendy Schmidt and Open Philanthropy—have donated approximately $1.5 billion to date to AI work. And in November 2023, 10 major philanthropies announced they were committing $200 million to fund “public interest efforts to mitigate AI harms and promote responsible use and innovation.”

Plan of Action

In order to enable NIST to more effectively and efficiently deliver on its mission, especially as it relates to rapid advancement in AI, Congress should authorize the establishment of a NIST Foundation. While the structure of agency-related foundations may vary depending on the agency they support, they all have several high-level elements in common, including but not limited to:

The activities of existing agency-related foundations have left them subject to criticism over potential conflicts of interest. A 2019 Congressional Research Service report highlights several case studies demonstrating concerning industry influence over foundation activities, including allegations that the National Football League (NFL) attempted to influence the selection of research applicants for a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, funded by the NFL through the FNIH, and the implications of the Coca-Cola Company making donations to the CDC Foundation for obesity and diet research.

In order to mitigate conflict of interest, transparency, and oversight issues, a NIST Foundation should consider rigorous policies that ensure a clear separation between external donations and decisions related to projects. Foundation policies and communications with donors should make explicit that donations will not result in specific project focus, and that donors will have no decision-making authority as it relates to project management. Donors would have to disclose any potential interests in foundation projects they would like to fund and would not be allowed to be listed as “anonymous” in the foundation’s regular financial reporting and auditing processes.

Additionally, instituting mechanisms for engaging with a diverse range of stakeholders is key to ensure the Foundation’s activities align with NIST’s mission and programs. One option is to mandate the establishment of a foundation advisory board composed of topical committees that map to those at NIST (such as AI) and staffed with experts across industry, academia, government, and advocacy groups who can provide guidance on strategic priorities and proposed initiatives. Many initiatives that the foundation might engage in on behalf of NIST, such as AI safety, would also benefit from strong public engagement (through required public forums and diverse stakeholder focus groups preceding program stand-up) to ensure that partnerships and programs address a broad range of potential ethical considerations and serve a public benefit.

Alongside specific structural components for a NIST Foundation, metrics will help measure its effectiveness. While quantitative measures only tell half the story, they are a starting point for evaluating whether a foundation is delivering its intended impact. Examples of potential metrics include:


Given financial and structural constraints, NIST risks being unable to quickly and efficiently fulfill its mandate related to AI, at a time when innovative technologies, systems, and governance structures are sorely needed to keep pace with a rapidly advancing field. Establishing a NIST Foundation to support the agency’s AI work and other priorities would bolster NIST’s capacity to innovate and set technical standards, thus encouraging the safe, reliable, and ethical deployment of AI technologies. It would also increase trust in AI technologies and lead to greater uptake of AI across various sectors where it could drive economic growth, improve public services, and bolster U.S. global competitiveness. And it would help make the case for leveraging public-private partnership models to tackle other critical S&T priorities.

This idea is part of our AI Legislation Policy Sprint. To see all of the policy ideas spanning innovation, education, healthcare, and trust, safety, and privacy, head to our sprint landing page.