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Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Center for Advanced Science, Innovation and Commerce
Auburn University
Auburn, AL
November 18, 2011
Dr. Willie E. May, NIST Associate Director for Laboratory Programs


Good afternoon. As Representative Hubbard said, I'm Willie E. May, and I'm very pleased to be here with you this afternoon to celebrate this momentous occasion.I come representing not just the National Institute of Standards and Technology, but my colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—and for that matter, the entire Department of Commerce. I am also coming home—sort of.

I was born in Covington County—Dozier to be specific—and grew up and attended public schools in Birmingham. I was one of the few boys in the neighborhood to be wise enough to be an Auburn fan versus that other school to the northwest.

This groundbreaking event is important to all of us because it represents a "win" with respect to two key initiatives that both the President and Commerce Department have pushed for expansion of the U.S. economy through investments in research in science and technology, and winning the future through investments in education.

That commitment to research—to scientific enquiry—to education and the appreciation of their importance to our common good, is a point that should not, in fact cannot, be lost.

The importance of this new facility, the Center for Advanced Science, Innovation, and Commerce, to our friends at NOAA is pretty obvious. There is a very obvious link between the new center's planned facilities for aquaculture research, for studies regarding the genetics of marine species, and for research and new technology development related to water quality and NOAA's mission. And, of course, Auburn has a long history of work with them.However, the ties to NIST may seem a little less obvious.

For those not familiar with us, we are the nation's measurement laboratory. We have a unique mission within the federal government: to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. We provide the cutting-edge measurements, standards, and technologies that ensure buyers and sellers can exchange products with confidence and we support the U.S. academic and industrial research communities with the tools they need to ensure measurement and data comparability across institutions.

Measurement is quite a broad and vague mandate. You may automatically think of us as worrying about the national time standard and the mass of a kilogram, but we conduct research in any area of measurement science that you can imagine. From research to define the physical constants of nature as a basis for standardization, to cutting edge research in nanotechnology and quantum science, to chemical and biological measurement science, to materials properties, to the engineering disciplines and information technology.

Just this past month, for example, a NIST research team at the Hollings Marine Laboratory (joint institute) elucidated a key genetic structure that we believe plays a critical role in the reproduction of infectious salmon anemia virus.

This new center's planned research on improved measurement technologies and standards in areas such as water, environmental quality, and biofuels relates directly to the NIST mission and research that is ongoing in our material measurement organization.

You know, it's not quite true that this marks the beginning of our relationship with Auburn. We actually "go way back," so to speak.

Back in the 1930s, the National Bureau of Standards—as we were called in those days —set up a field station at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which I believe is what you were called  "way back when." As I understand it, they were working together on problems in agricultural chemistry: How to make use of field wastes, turning corn husks into paper, and industrial uses of starches from southern crops.

Over the past 30 years or so, Auburn University and NIST have co-authored more than 30 scientific papers, covering areas in physics, chemistry, materials science, engineering, and mathematics. I asked our library to do a literature search. Those publications have been cited by others in the literature more than 700 times, by scientists at 400 different universities, government agencies, private companies, and independent research organizations.

But it is true that this is by far the biggest thing we've undertaken together at the "corporate level," and we're quite excited.

NIST, as you've heard, provided a little over $14 million towards this new center. The money came from our Construction Grant Program, a peer-reviewed, competitive program to help fund research facilities at institutes of higher education. I really should say "highly competitive," because we receive far more worthy applications than we can fund.

In this particular competition, we received 93 proposals, of which we were able to fund only seven. We were fortunate to receive a significant boost in funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that made this award to Auburn possible. The Recovery Act was passed to stimulate investment and create jobs. But it also had a longer-term purpose: to lay the foundation for future achievement and to lay the foundation for innovation by investing in fundamental research and knowledge generation—like the kind that this facility will produce. 

Thank you all for allowing me to join you on this historic occasion.