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Remarks by Dr. James M. Turner
Acting Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Department of Commerce Colloquium for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
November 1 , 2007


Thank you, Richard. Good morning everyone! I’m thrilled to be here today. There are a lot of things I get to do in my job that are rewarding, but this particular event where we not only celebrate the fantastic achievements of our staff, but we also get to brag about them to the President. It doesn’t get much better than that!

As you know, we are here to honor some of our best and brightest for their exemplary scientific and technological contributions. The achievements of our honorees today validate why this prestigious award was inaugurated — to recognize truly outstanding scientists and engineers with a measure of professional distinction and institutional support that will help them continue with their important work. 

Each of our creative, intelligent, and dedicated award winners today meet that high bar. So I’m very pleased that they can be here with their families and loved ones to be recognized in such a public way.

In some ways, the Presidential Early Career Awards are the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy for U.S. government scientists and engineers. It is our way of recognizing true talent and exceptional potential for leadership. While Heisman Trophy winners are lucky to last 15 years in professional football, our award recipients can look forward to long productive careers at the frontiers of scientific knowledge and technical excellence. The pay may not be quite as good as pro ball, but the work is also a lot less painful!

Seriously though, these awards are especially important to NIST. We pride ourselves on being able to see far into the future. Our mission is to ensure that the U.S. industrial and scientific communities have all the right tools to spur innovation and competitiveness at a world-leading pace. To do this we must identify key measurement science, standards, and technology needs as much as 15 years before products using them will be available in the marketplace.

Looking into the future, of course, requires vision. Our award winners today have shown that they have extraordinary vision. They have each shown a special combination of creative intelligence, determination, and scientific or engineering achievement that sets them apart from their peers. At a time in their careers when many people are just beginning to build confidence in setting their own research directions, our award winners have distinguished themselves by leading the way to superior solutions and inspired results.

I’d like to spend just a few minutes talking about the creativity, that spark, that makes our award winners so valuable to us as employees and colleagues.

According to Wikipedia, today’s font of all knowledge, a group of psychologists agreed in 1994 to define intelligence as the following:

[A] very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings — “catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.

In other words, intelligence is not just how smart you are, but also how well you use those smarts. Many researchers in recent times have, in fact, defined many different types of intelligence: analytical, creative, practical, emotional, linguistic, etc.

Selecting scientists and engineers to receive the Presidential Early Career Award is, of course, a very difficult task. I can’t speak to how you make these difficult decisions over at NOAA, although maybe we should compare notes after the ceremony. At NIST, I can tell you that we are, consciously or unconsciously, looking for those individuals who have a special kind of creative and analytical intelligence, people who know how to make connections between seemingly disparate things, whose sheer presence in a research group raises the output of the whole group . Finally, we are looking for people who find true satisfaction and joy in solving incredibly difficult problems.

All organizations are only as good as the people working in them. No matter what budget we have or how wonderful our facilities may be, we can only accomplish amazing things with amazing people.

Thank you for inspiring the rest of us with your truly amazing achievements.