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January 3, 2005

Dr. Hratch Semerjian
NIST Acting Director
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Gaithersburg, MD 20899

Dear Hratch,

The VCAT would like to again thank you and your staff for another extremely interesting and productive meeting held in Gaithersburg on December 7-8, 2004. We value and appreciate the time and effort that all of the speakers put forth in providing informative, detailed, and candid presentations. These presentations and subsequent discussions with the Committee continue to demonstrate your commitment for continuous improvement to the Institute's strategic planning and outreach efforts.

Budget

We commend your prudent management of the Institute during its difficult budget problems in FY 2004. The Committee is pleased that Congress substantially increased appropriations for NIST in FY 2005 and we recommend that these additional resources support new directions in each of the strategic focus areas to the extent possible. Also, please update us on the status of the transfer of funds from FEMA to NIST in support of the Institute's leadership role in the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.

Strategic Planning

Opportunities for Change

The Committee applauds the results of your successful senior management retreat this fall, which led to the identification of the needs and opportunities that will enable NIST to better align its program portfolio with external drivers. We fully support your proposed approach to these opportunities by being more responsive to customer and market needs and by developing more effective NIST-wide interdisciplinary program management, greater sensitivity to managing risks, and more comprehensive marketing efforts. However, these changes will require special management attention to overcome the staff discomfort that is usually associated with major organization transformations. To help NIST successfully implement these changes, the Committee is offering to present a special panel discussion at a future VCAT meeting to share our knowledge of best practices for organizational transformation. The panel would cover such topics as the importance of organizational buy-in, the need for clearly defined roles and objectives, and accountability for resources. We are extremely pleased that NIST is moving in this direction and encourage you to begin to plan for this transformation as soon as possible to best leverage the Institute's funding in 2005 and subsequent years.

Strategic Working Groups

The presentations from the chairs of the Strategic Working Groups (SWGs) for homeland security, biosystems and health, and nanotechnology were quite impressive and illustrated the good progress being made in each of these areas. In particular, we appreciate learning of some of the difficult operational issues associated with the SWGs. We believe that your new approach for NIST-wide strategic management, as described above, will effectively address these issues. Although the SWGs are addressing strategic focus areas of great importance to the nation, NIST should develop a system for setting priorities across these areas with an emphasis on carrying out work that maximizes the use of the Institute's existing competencies. We encourage the continued use of Michael Porter's techniques for analyzing industries and competitors to assist in the difficult task of distinguishing between customers and markets as you set priorities. Another challenge for NIST is to develop performance metrics for each SWG for 2005 which will help the Institute and the Committee more objectively assess the success of these groups. Lastly, we look forward to a status report by the end of the year on the Information/Knowledge Management SWG, an important strategic focus area that may impact on the other SWGs.

Outreach/Partnerships

The Committee was very pleased to have the opportunity to review the first draft of the new NIST Overview and to provide you with our detailed comments. This version represents a good start in developing a new and more powerful NIST Overview that can be used for outreach to customers and stakeholders. We agree that this presentation may need to be customized for specific audiences, and hope that our suggestions for improving the content and format of this overview are helpful.

NIST's external outreach efforts are commendable and demonstrate the positive impact that Mat Heyman, the new Chief of Staff, has had on overseeing these activities. He and his team have developed an excellent and comprehensive outreach strategy for 2005. Keep up the good work! We are impressed with the initial set of detailed performance metrics that show NIST's outreach efforts have significantly increased and recommend that these measures be refined.

The Committee is excited that NIST's external collaborations with universities, other agencies, and the private sector are becoming more geographically dispersed. However, as NIST becomes more visible and the number of potential partnerships increases, we urge you to apply a final set of selection criteria based on the nation's priorities and NIST's competencies that can assist you in establishing these relationships. In addition, it is important that each partnership include a clear commitment of resources, such as dollars, facilities, or people, from both parties. We look forward to reviewing the draft criteria for establishing strategic partnerships at a future meeting.

National Measurement System

The Committee continues to strongly support NIST's efforts to reaffirm its role as the leader of the National Measurement System (NMS). The ambitious action plan described in Rich Kayser's presentation on this topic is a step in the right direction and involves many customers and stakeholders. NIST should be prudent in selecting customers and stakeholders that represent a broad interest rather than individual agendas to assist in these efforts. To help NIST better manage this monumental task, we encourage the Institute to divide the plan into smaller steps for assessing progress and to develop a knowledge management infrastructure.

Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program

We admire Kevin Carr's leadership and success in exploring new opportunities for MEP's continued operations in 2004, a very difficult budget year. The Committee recommends that NIST develop a strategy for preventing future proposals by the Administration to reduce MEP's funding, including an outreach plan for the new DoC Secretary.

Laboratory Tours

Jon Pratt provided a very passionate and interesting overview of the Microforce Realization and Measurements competence project that began in FY 2000. This project is another outstanding example of how NIST competence funds have successfully been used in an intra-laboratory collaboration to carry out core measurement research that is at the heart of the NIST mission. By exploring new approaches for measuring microforce and designing specialized instrumentation for these measurements, NIST has formed the basis for an infrastructure that will address the metrology needs of a growing class of nanotechnologies important to the nation's manufacturing sector.

The Committee enjoyed visiting the Immersive Visualization project that is making good use of commercially available hardware that complements NIST's development of a suite of software tools for studying scientific data in a three-dimensional landscape. The three demonstrations showed intriguing applications for cement and concrete flow, tissue engineering, and the behavior of smart gels used in the drug and food industry. This project also illustrated the excellent collaborations between NIST's computer scientists and physical scientists.

In the future, we would very much like to visit a cybersecurity laboratory project at NIST.

Safety

We are pleased to learn that NIST safety incidences have been reduced in both Gaithersburg and Boulder over the past three years. As illustrated by your updated benchmarking data, NIST's "lost work day incident" rate compares favorably with other federal laboratories. We support your goal of reaching nearly zero lost work day incidents, and again encourage members of the Safety Council to continue to work with Deb Grubbe and other VCAT members to further improve safety management practices and results.

Closing

Over the past several months, you have continued to excel in your leadership of NIST as the Acting Director while offering significant opportunities for change. During a time of great budget uncertainty for NIST, you have been successful in motivating the staff to continue to strive for excellence, as evident by the impressive external and internal awards that recognize NIST's outstanding contributions to the nation. We congratulate you for these efforts and will continue to provide you our full support.

We are hopeful that Carlos Gutierrez will be confirmed soon as the Secretary of Commerce so that we can meet with him in March and educate him about the value of NIST. If time permits, we also would like to visit with other key stakeholders for NIST.

Sincerely,

signature of April Schweighart

April Schweighart, Chair
Visiting Committee on Advanced
Technology

cc: Senior Management Board
Gail Ehrlich