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June 2004 VCAT Letter Report to NIST Director

June 30, 2004

Dr. Hratch Semerjian
Acting NIST Director
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Gaithersburg, MD 20809

Dear Hratch,

On behalf of the VCAT, I want to thank you and your staff for another extremely informative and stimulating meeting held in Gaithersburg on June 8-9, 2004. The detailed presentations clearly demonstrate that NIST leadership is committed to improving its strategic planning process and outreach efforts. The VCAT appreciates your openness and the breadth of information and data provided on these topics. We commend NIST for its excellent progress towards improving and implementing the Strategic Plan. We also commend NIST for establishing a coherent, achievable, and effective methodology and plan for increasing NIST's outreach efforts. These two efforts are complementary and will each help the other. The presentations on the National Baldrige Quality Program and independent commissions were outstanding as were the tours of NIST projects in biosystems and health.

Strategic Planning

NIST 2010 Strategic Plan:

It is evident that that the NIST 2010 Strategic Plan is now being embraced by the NIST leadership and is being implemented through multiple channels: Strategic Working Groups; competence funding; budget initiatives in the Strategic Focus Areas (SFAs); and alignment of the OU operating plans with the NIST-wide plan. As in other aspects of the plan, we look forward to on-going continuous improvement.

To further assess the success of implementing the plan, we would like to learn the specific funding levels associated with each SFA, and how much of that funding is dedicated to new projects started in response to the plan relative to pre-existing research programs. The recent formation and operation of the Strategic Working Groups for Homeland Security and for Biosystems and Health with cross-OU collaboration is a positive step forward in identifying opportunities in two of the four SFAs. We urge NIST to more closely examine the Institute's role in the biosciences and pharmaceutical industries where a wide-range of measurements and standards are needed, as well as opportunities for extensive collaborations in these areas to take advantage of expertise outside of NIST.

Revision of NIST 2010, Version 1b:

NIST 2010, Version 1b, is a vast improvement over the previous version. We commend NIST leadership for their willingness to continue to learn how to more effectively develop a strategic plan; their responsiveness to suggestions for improvements from the VCAT, other stakeholders, customers, and staff; and their recognition that the plan must be continuously improved as a living document. By establishing a process for reviewing and updating the plan, NIST management shows both their ownership of the plan as well as driving buy-in for its implementation through involving others at NIST in this process. In particular, we support the new structure that emphasizes the value of core metrology and standards development and integrates the SFAs within NIST's overall laboratory program portfolio. Among other benefits, this structure provides an appropriately flexible framework for the SFAs, which are likely to change over time as technology and market conditions evolve. To further improve the plan or corollary planning processes, the VCAT offers the following observations and recommendations:

- Performance Measures - The implementation section of the plan is a great improvement and could be expanded with even greater attention to short-term and long-term metrics. This type of approach would be consistent with the Baldrige framework. The VCAT would like to see the data that shows evidence of progress at each quarterly meeting. If possible, the VCAT also would like to discuss with NIST management the target investment levels for each objective, including other agency funding.

- Other Agency Funding - In recognition of the significant amount of other agency funding that supports NIST programs now and with even more funds expected for the future from DHS and NIH in support of the Homeland Security and Biosystems and Health SFAs, NIST should have a clear and effective strategy for other agency funding. This will help to highlight NIST's role in these areas with respect to these other government agencies.

- Collaborations/Customers - To help leverage NIST's expertise within tight budget constraints, more external collaborations may be needed. The plan should address the strategy for identifying where collaborations would be appropriate, targeting specific organizations to collaborate with, and achieving those collaborations. This could be included in the risk assessment and risk mitigation part of the strategic plan. In addition, the plan should identify and address major segments of NIST's customer base. Methods and metrics for evaluating the success of NIST's outreach efforts and partnerships also should be developed.

- Human Resources - The VCAT supports NIST's conservative approach to reducing staff in response to budget constraints, but we are concerned about retaining and building world-class competencies in the SFAs. To address these concerns, the plan should include Human Resource goals that identify the specific talents and skills needed in each SFA along with measures of success, such as the number of external staff awards in each SFA.

- Organizational Excellence - More emphasis is needed on the implementation of organizational excellence, goal 5, especially as a means to achieve the plan's programmatic goals.

- Impacts - If possible, more specific downstream impacts for each of the SFAs should be provided in the plan's tables instead of the generic end-impact metrics of R&D productivity, lower costs, higher quality, etc.

- Globalization - Be more explicit in the plan about globalization as a new context for both NIST and other national measurement institutes. This should include possible changes to their roles and their impact on U.S. competitiveness in global markets.

- National Measurement System (NMS) - The VCAT commends NIST for its efforts to update the definition of the Nation's Measurement System and identify current and potential roles for the Institute. We strongly advise that the analysis of NIST's role in the NMS be integrated into the plan.


The VCAT commends NIST leadership for developing a coherent outreach strategy for the Institute and applauds its progress in establishing new alliances and partnerships. We are pleased to learn that Representative Wolf was enthusiastic about his recent visit to NIST and concur with his advice that NIST provide a similar learning opportunity to other members of Congress who may be unaware of NIST's impacts due to the Institute's relative small size and specialized functions. In addition, NIST should continue to host laboratory tours to as many other influential stakeholders and business leaders as possible. At the same time, NIST must continue to take a proactive role in facilitating collaborations by visiting high-level leaders less acquainted with NIST expertise.

The new key message that emphasizes NIST's impacts on innovation, trade, security, and jobs is excellent, but should be expanded slightly to include the Institute's valuable contributions to the quality of life as stated in the NIST mission. While consistency and alignment of the messages used in the plan and in marketing are important, the staff and many stakeholders are more likely to embrace a short message. Generally, NIST leadership should strive to ensure that all staff understand the Institute's key message and how their own work contributes to the outcomes described in that message.

Paul Doremus' presentation on the origin, approach, and results of several independent commissions was fascinating. We appreciate the amount of time that was involved in preparing this history in response to our request to explore the feasibility of an independent commission to assess NIST's roles and contributions to the economy. Based on this in-depth analysis and discussions with NIST leadership, the VCAT views such a high-level commission as an unlikely prospect with an uncertain utility for NIST. Instead, NIST should continue to focus on productive outreach activities with industry leaders, such as the Business Roundtable, that could help facilitate partnerships that benefit the U.S. economy in the measurements and standards arena.


To help the VCAT better understand NIST's budgeting and planning processes, we are requesting that budget trend data be presented regularly, where possible. In particular, other- agency funding levels for the NIST laboratories by program area would be helpful. We also would like to learn more about the budget process, reprogramming requirements, and related structural conditions.

Baldrige National Quality Program

Sister Mary Jean Ryan's presentation on the impact of the Baldrige process to SSM Health Care was an inspirational testimonial to the benefits of the Baldrige program. It was clear from Harry Hertz' talk that the Baldrige program continues to generate value based on the number of increasing award applicants and customer satisfaction data. This program is truly one of the government's most highly leveraged and effective programs. Keep up the great work!

NIST Update and Extramural Programs

The brief quarterly update of NIST programs is valuable as it provides a high-level review of NIST's significant accomplishments and awards; recent program developments in high-profile areas, such as HAVA and the USA PATRIOT Act; and the status of the extramural programs.

With an extraordinary high number of over 870 Advanced Technology Program (ATP) proposals submitted for FY 2004 and the limited availability of funds, NIST should explore opportunities to leverage ATP's high-quality assessment process of promising innovative technologies by providing, for example, some type of rating system for unfunded proposals, similar to the NIH process. Applicants might benefit from such a system as a high quality external assessment of their technical programs.

Faced with a severe budget reduction in FY 2004, MEP's plan to maintain all existing Centers through FY 2004 and reduce central support activities and internal staff is the right approach. However, we are concerned that a recompetition of the Centers in FY 2005 could effectively destroy the existing national network that took many years to build. MEP should continue to explore strategic partnerships with other agencies.

Laboratory Tours

We were quite impressed with our tours highlighting CSTL's work in standards for clinical diagnostics and the NCNR's support of the Cold Neutron for Biology and Technology consortium. The speakers were passionate about their work and we were intrigued by the quality of research conducted in these areas. Both of these projects exemplify NIST's unique role in biosystems and health where the opportunities for collaborations are extensive.


The VCAT was extremely pleased to see Ben Wu, the Deputy Under Secretary for Technology for the Department of Commerce, at the meeting. His attendance highlights the Department's support for NIST and for the VCAT. Ben also spoke with me during lunch. I thanked him for attending and we discussed the importance of the VCAT, the help it can provide to NIST, and my role as the Chair of the VCAT.

As you know, we had to postpone our meeting with OMB due to the events surrounding Ronald Reagan's funeral. Hopefully, this meeting can be rescheduled over the summer so that we can discuss NIST's research portfolio and strategic direction with OMB.

I look forward to another productive meeting in September in Boulder.


signature of April Schweighart

April Schweighart, Chair
Visiting Committee on Advanced

cc: Senior Management Board
Gail Ehrlich

Created August 18, 2009, Updated September 9, 2021