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NIST: Strengthening U.S. Innovation and Industrial Competitiveness

NIST scientist are studying ways to
assemble individual molecules for use
as active circuit components. Here,
postdoctoral researcher Lucille Teague
inserts a sample into a scanning
tunneling microscope to study the
electrical behavior of organic molecules
on a gold surface.

Photo by Beamie Young/NIST 
Innovation is critical to the future of U.S. competitiveness and for enhancing our quality of life. This is increasingly important as political and technological changes open access to the global economy—producing both new markets and increased competition. The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is well positioned—at the nexus of academia and industry—to help America address this challenge. NIST has a 100-plus-year track record of serving U.S. industry, science, and the public with a mission and approach unlike any other agency of government.

Technology-based innovation remains one of the nation’s most important competitive advantages, and helping the U.S. to drive and take advantage of the increased pace of technological change is a top priority for NIST. Today, more than at any other time in history, technological innovation and progress depend on NIST’s unique skills and capabilities. The new technologies that are determining the global winners in the early 21st century—including nanotechnology, information technology, and advanced manufacturing—rely on NIST-developed tools to measure, evaluate, and standardize. The technologies that emerge as a result of NIST’s development of these tools are enabling U.S. companies to innovate and remain competitive.

More efficient transactions in the domestic and global marketplace depend increasingly on our ability to promote the effective development and use of standards—and “standards” is NIST’s middle name. For example, U.S. access to global markets frequently is affected by standards being set by other countries and international organizations. The application of these seemingly arcane standards and related testing requirements may make or break entire industries—and determine the fate of many American workers. NIST is helping U.S. companies, workers, and consumers to get a fair deal by working to ensure that standards are used to create a level playing field—and not a barrier to trade—in the global marketplace.

All U.S. companies are in an intense global competition. By providing hands-on technical and business assistance to the smaller U.S. manufacturers—many of which are key suppliers to larger firms—NIST is helping companies to retain and create new jobs, become more productive, and succeed in markets both domestic and foreign. By offering organizations guidelines for achieving new levels of excellence in performance, NIST plays a vital role in a national movement that inspires customer service, management leadership, and employee involvement and satisfaction. This helps companies, schools, hospitals, and other organizations to meet demands for superior quality products and services. The documented result: more competitive organizations and more—and better—jobs for Americans.

The well-being of our citizens is affected every day by NIST’s measurement and standards work. The quality of the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat depends in part on that work. NIST standards—which are not regulatory—ensure that consumers are confident of the quantity and quality of the product purchased whether it is a gallon of gasoline or the amount of electricity used and stated in the monthly bill. They protect our banking at ATMs and our online purchases. They improve the accuracy of our medical tests and treatments and help to make sure that we know the nutritional content of what we are eating. They help to convict criminals and free the innocent through more accurate and faster DNA tests. They provide crucial timekeeping that we depend upon for navigation, telecommunications, financial transactions, and basic research. And they improve the readiness of our first responders and our homeland security.

NIST is assigned responsibilities, by Congress and the Administration, to address special national needs. For example, the Institute is called upon to assist in such national efforts as the Help America Vote Act, building disaster investigations, and Personal Identity Verification standards due to its outstanding technical reputation.

How Do They Do That?


Ultraprecise electrical measurements
require extremely stable temperature,
humidity, and vibration control. In
this laboratory within the NIST
Advanced Measurement Laboratory
physicist Rand Elmquist fills a
cryogenic chamber with liquid helium
in preparation for measuring the
international standard for electrical
resistance--the quantum Hall effect.

Copyright Robert Rathe

The measurements, standards, and technologies that are the essence of the work done by NIST’s laboratories help U.S. industry and science to invent and manufacture superior products and to provide services reliably. NIST manages some of the world’s most specialized measurement facilities—including an unmatched and extraordinarily cost-effective NIST Center for Neutron Research user facility where cutting-edge research is done on new and improved materials, advanced fuel cells, and biotechnology. NIST’s new Advanced Measurement Laboratory (AML) is the most technically advanced research facility of its kind in the world. The AML’s exquisite environmental control offers American researchers unparalleled opportunities for making the most sensitive and reliable measurements. That’s increasingly important as new technologies become more complex and smaller—and more dependent on the most accurate possible measurements in order to move from theory, proof of concept, and prototypes into products. NIST’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) is a new effort, within the AML, that will bring together a multidisciplinary team from across NIST, industry, academia, and other government agencies to support all phases of nanotechnology development, from discovery to production. The CNST has a primary goal of enabling the manufacture of products incorporating nanotechnology.

NIST’s Baldrige Performance Excellence Program works closely with manufacturers, service companies, and educational, health-care, and non-profit organizations to develop and disseminate world-class “best practices” for their management and operation that result in higher quality products and services. This small NIST program is leveraged by a network of more than 500 private-sector volunteers and by Baldrige-based programs run in 41 states.

The NIST Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership strengthens the competitiveness of thousands of America’s small and mid-sized manufacturers with a broad array of technical and business support services ranging from plant modernization and employee training to business practices and information technology. The companies pay fees for the services, which complement federal and state or local support for the operations of non-profit centers around the country that deliver or arrange for the services.

Companies feel more comfortable sharing their concerns and technical needs with the agency’s scientists and engineers. And companies that are competing head-to-head often come to NIST to discuss mutually beneficial agendas for the measurements and standards that they sorely need and that can be developed only at a national level. With a reputation for scientific integrity that has been built up over more than a century, NIST often serves as a neutral third party in addressing sensitive measurement issues confronting industry and other agencies—where billions of dollars may depend on the outcome of those measurements.


NIST researchers use ultra precise coordinate measuring
machines (CMMs) to precisely measure the
dimensions of complex automotive and other
product parts. Here, NIST mechanical engineer
Daniel Sawyer uses a CMM to measure the dimensions
of a machined part.

Courtesy HDR Architecture, Inc./Steve Hall
©Hedrich Blessing

About 2,800 employees—including three Nobel Prize winners—and 1,800 visiting researchers and 1,400 affiliated field agents each year team to make NIST a globally respected source of information and research that drives innovation in business and in the research laboratory. The work done by NIST underlies much of our nation’s business and public infrastructure—strengthening U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness.