December 21, 2018
Dear Mr. President:
This is a perspective from the ground regarding the impacts of your decisions. I’m a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, leading a project developing hardware for advanced computing. NIST is part of the Department of Commerce, so our doors will be closed tonight if funding is not appropriated.
To achieve our goals, our team fabricates optoelectronic devices in a cleanroom, and we test them in a lab with specialized equipment. This is not the kind of work easily done from home. But you said it could be “a very long shutdown”, and we still need to get things done. Back in 2013, we never expected the shutdown to drag on so long. We were inadequately prepared to be productive when denied our usual infrastructure. We know better this time. We have loaded as many computers and supplies into our cars as we are authorized to take home, so at least we can design circuits for future experiments. The limited funding we receive will not continue if we don’t get results. We must find ways to keep our project moving in spite of barriers placed before us.
One of our team members is Afghani. He’s the only person he knows to leave his home village for America. He taught himself math and physics, then came to our country to obtain a PhD in electrical engineering. When we needed someone to contribute to an IARPA program, he had the right skills and work ethic, so we hired him. He is here to serve our country as an innovator. He thanks me every day for this opportunity.
He and his wife (a medical professional) are raising three children. Last week, their eight-year-old son was bullied at school where he was called black by another young student. The boy asked his dad what to say. “Tell them you are Pashtun,” my colleague suggested. “I’m not Pashtun,” said his son. “I’m American.”
No stranger to the atrocities of war, he once told me he didn’t know how many of his brothers were taken by gunfire before he was born. On Tuesday, when he heard you were abruptly withdrawing from Syria, he said he hoped you wouldn’t do the same in Afghanistan or half the people in his country would die. The next day, you announced on Twitter half the troops would be removed. We don’t yet know how the final math works out—does this mean a quarter of his country will die?
His role in our project is to create interfaces that bring light from optical fibers onto electronic chips. You have shut down the government in an attempt to separate two entities: our country from its neighbor. The goal of our work is to bring two entities together: light and electricity. Computers work better if you leverage the strengths of both. It’s an ambitious project, and funding has not come easily. We’ve had to make our case, and it’s taken years. But with careful study, analysis of alternatives, and collaboration with allies, we’re making progress on our mission. It takes patience and strategy, and it has to be built upon a good idea.
The larger goal of this work is to achieve new systems for advanced computing. China is investing more than we are in this domain, perhaps by orders of magnitude. Losing this race will have extraordinary economic and national security consequences. Simultaneously, we find ourselves in a new cold war, with artificial intelligence at the center. One of the concepts guiding our research is that networks of information processors with strong connections are more powerful than isolated cores. This is the same message Secretary Mattis attempted to convey to you yesterday. We aim to apply this concept to create new technologies that may secure our nation’s future, and you could apply the very same concept to strengthen our network at home and abroad.
Now it is after midnight in DC, and our elected representatives have not implemented a plan to fund our government. I have unpacked the books and papers I brought home from the office, materials for study during furlough. Mr. President, you can shut our doors, but you cannot shut us down. There is too much at stake for us to stop our work. This is what we do to keep our country as great as it has always been.
I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation as a scientist.
Jeffrey M. Shainline