Technology proved its value to national security once again in the 1990s when the United States used it to help win the Gulf War. More significantly, technology also demonstrated its power to fuel economic growth when American inventions, such as the Internet and the graphical "browser" for the World Wide Web, created a new national pastime and a multitude of new information industries. Partly as a result of this phenomenon, the concerns of the 1980s regarding U.S. competitiveness dissipated somewhat. NIST contributed to the new Information Age in important ways by, for example, leading the development of standards for computer security, many of which subsequently were adopted as voluntary industry standards.
Development of civilian technology was accelerated in the 1990s through a series of government initiatives. With leading economists asserting that technology accounts for at least half of U.S. economic growth, the federal government took a new approach to funding science and technology. Instead of just basic research and military and space applications, the new outlook also encompassed broadly applicable, "precompetitive" (not quite ready for commercialization) technologies that can be applied by industry to create better products, high-paying jobs, and a clean environment.
In addition to electronics and information systems, a number of other technology areas were identified by the government as critical or strategic to U.S. interests. These included energy and environmental quality, manufacturing, medicine and biotechnology, materials, and transportation. There remains strong interest in helping small businesses compete and in nurturing the interdisciplinary research that increasingly fuels advances in science and technology.
NIST continues to be involved in all these areas. In addition to maintaining strong basic research programs in physics, chemistry, materials, electronics, manufacturing, building technology, and other fields, its Measurement and Standards Laboratories provide measurements, standards, and other support for industries that produce critical technologies. This work helps companies solve problems and commercialize new technologies faster than before, a linchpin of competitiveness in the 1990s and the new millennium.
Meanwhile, the ATP nurtures innovation across a broad range of technology sectors. A study of the first 38 completed ATP projects estimated that the national economic benefits of just several projects will exceed the ATP's entire investment in the more than 450 projects selected at the time of the study. The ATP also has proven to be highly effective in fostering cross-cutting, interdisciplinary collaborations among large and small firms and academic institutions. To assist small businesses, the MEP provides essential support and services, such as help in streamlining manufacturing processes to improve productivity. And a broad consensus has emerged indicating the Baldrige program has greatly improved attention to quality and organizational excellence across the private sector.
Although the economic threat posed by foreign countries has lessened for now, ensuring the nation's ability to compete in the 21st century remains a challenge. Recent analyses by a variety of organizations indicate that the U.S. lead over Japan is widening in technology areas such as software, sensors, and information management. But Japan is leading in other sectors, such as flat-panel displays, and gaining ground in others. And Japan has been joined by many other emerging economies. Of further concern, U.S. investment in research and development is lower as a percentage of national wealth than it was in the early 1980s, leading some to question America's capacity for future innovation.
At the close of the 20th century, there are more than 700 federal laboratories in the United States, a stark contrast to the days when NIST stood alone in focusing on physical science. But NIST's influence continues to be pervasive. In fact, NIST's importance increases with the number of other federal laboratories (and university and corporate research organizations) because many of their measurements need to be traceable to NIST, and because technological innovation and development depend more on measurements now than at any time in the past.
Although the time has passed when U.S. technology standards automatically became de facto world standards, NIST staff continue to work toward ensuring the marketability of U.S. products worldwide by serving on more than 800 standards committees of national and international organizations. NIST also continues to explore the frontiers of science and industry, from atomic physics to electronic books, and the technologies of tomorrow, such as devices designed and fabricated on the nanometer scale that offer stunning new capabilities. Because who knows what tomorrow's equivalent of radio, atomic clocks, lasers, or the Internet will be ... or from where they will come?
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