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NIST Report Addresses Scientific and Technical Measurement Challenges Key to Sustaining U.S. Innovation

GAITHERSBURG, Md.—A new report based on an analysis of more than 700 scientific and technical measurement challenges facing U.S. industry today, calls on the public and private sectors to address those challenges by crafting a "strategic, long-term approach" designed to sustain U.S. innovation at a world-leading pace.

The call for collaboration is one of several key messages contained in An Assessment of the United States Measurement System: Addressing Measurement Barriers to Accelerate Innovation, a new report from the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The report is the product of a NIST-led survey and analysis of measurement-related needs for supporting innovation across a sample of 11 industrial sectors and technology areas. These ranged from materials to software and from building and construction to nanotechnology. In all, more than 1,000 people in industry, academia and government were involved in the study. Examples of the measurement challenges identified included the need for versatile, high-accuracy methods to measure the three-dimensional geometry of manufactured products and the need for tools for measuring the properties of nanodevices and materials.

"The 21st century will be defined by new technologies that fundamentally change the products available, the way they are manufactured and the impact on our quality of life," says NIST Director William Jeffrey. "But before these technologies can be realized—and commercialized—new measurement techniques will be needed. Ensuring the health of the nation's measurement infrastructure is vital to enable U.S. industry to maintain and enhance our global economic competitiveness."

Measurement challenges distilled in the report were identified in 15 specially convened workshops, reviews of more than 160 technology "roadmaps" produced by public and private sector organizations, and interviews. 

The assessment of the nation's measurement infrastructure was unique in its focus on technological innovation and in its system-wide scope, encompassing a varied sample of private and public sector organizations ranging from university laboratories to commercial testing services to regulators. It resulted in 14 conclusions regarding the structure and function of the U.S. measurement system (USMS), challenges posed by progress in science and technology, and potential actions to ensure that anticipated measurement capabilities are available to U.S. industry when needed.

The emphasis on innovation reflects growing recognition that the nation's future prosperity and security will depend increasingly on how well the United States performs in conceiving, developing and applying new technology and in introducing it into the marketplace.

This year, for example, the U.S. semiconductor industry alone will spend a projected $9 billion on measurement equipment. Studies and industry forecasts cite measurement-related challenges as major barriers to continued miniaturization of the circuits that are at the heart of today's vast offerings of electronic gear.

Successful development and introduction of important next-generation products will hinge on progress on several measurement-related fronts. For example, realization of the promise of quantum computing, nanoscale devices and other frontier technologies will require advances in the science of measurement. With regard to nanotechnology, the report says, "Industry is limited not only in its ability to measure key parameters but also in its ability to identify which key parameters must be measured to meet anticipated regulations."

In addition, breakthroughs in measurement capabilities may be necessary to clear a path to market. "Innovation has in some cases been stalled," the study explains, "due to lack of measurement technology to assure and verify compliance or to resolve questions regarding potential risks and hazards that emerging technologies may pose."

The study defines the USMS as the "complex network of all private and public organizations that develop, supply, use, and ensure the validity of measurements." This network extends well beyond NIST and the calibration laboratories, accreditation services, weights and measures regulations, and other organizational elements focused primarily on ensuring fairness in domestic and international trade. Most previous studies on the economics of measurement, carried out in the United States and other nations, have been confined to this more limited perspective, and have not focused on the role of measurement in accelerating innovation. 

For its part, the report says, NIST will use this assessment to focus its own work in support of U.S. innovation and competitiveness. The report's results and findings, along with input gathered in follow-up activities, will inform NIST's strategic planning decisions. NIST also plans to work with other organizations in both the private and public sectors to raise awareness of the important role that advances in measurement science and technology play in boosting innovation.

An Assessment of the United States Measurement System: Addressing Measurement Barriers to Accelerate Innovation is available on the NIST Web site at:

As a non-regulatory agency of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration, NIST promotes 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.

Released February 12, 2007, Updated January 20, 2023