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For the 2nd USA-China Seminar on Technical Innovation

Technology and innovation.

I'd like to state that I'm in favor of technological innovation.

But since I'm the director of the largest U.S. government laboratory with "technology" in its name, you probably already assumed that.

What I'd like to do over the next few minutes, however, is tell you a little of the background of how the National Institute of Standards and Technology got that word in its title, how it reflects on technology policy, and what we're doing today to live up to it.

First a little history for the younger members of the audience.

We are the first and oldest physical science laboratory of the U.S. government, established in 1901, just about the same time as the nation's first commercial laboratory. We grew up with the technology age.

We were established – after a little fussing over the name – as the National Bureau of Standards and remained that way for nearly 90 years. Back in our labs the majority of the research staff still call us "the Bureau", not "the Institute".

We were created by the Congress in a time of technological crisis – and the crisis was measurement technology.

As the 20th century dawned, the United States was emerging as a world power, with a growing industrial economy. But our science and industry was crippled by the lack of coherent measurement standards.

Although the U.S. had signed the Treaty of the Meter back in 1875 – and indeed had a national office of weights and measures – coordination between federal, state and local standards was almost non-existent.

There are a lot of entertaining horror stories from that time. One historian recounts that in 1902 the city surveyors for Brooklyn, New York, recognized no fewer than four different – but legal! – standards for the foot. They had entertaining names like "the Bushwick foot" and the "the foot of the 26th Ward." This authority claims that there were actual bits of real estate in Brooklyn that couldn't be taxed because, after two different surveys with different feet, they didn't legally exist.

I know many homeowners out there are wishing for those good old days.

This would all have been comical were it not for the very real social and economic costs of measurement chaos. American instruments had to be sent abroad for calibration. Scientists complained that they had to contend with eight different possible values for the U.S. gallon. A lack of agreed-upon measurement standards in electricity was tying up America's growing electrical industry in lawsuits.

The capper – the horror story everyone cites – was the Baltimore fire of 1904.

More than 1,500 buildings in Baltimore, Maryland, burned to the ground in that disaster. Fire companies from Washington and as far away as New York arrived to help, but they mostly had to stand around because few of their hoses fit the Baltimore hydrants. No standards.

It was against that background that the Congress created a national standards laboratory to meet the needs of industry and government. It had an initial staff of 12.

In the intervening years the Bureau of Standards slowly grew and evolved in line with its core mission to meet the measurement needs of industry and science. It developed a wide range of basic measurement standards. It conducted materials testing, attacking, for example, a serious problem in steel quality that led to thousands of train derailments.

During the war years it helped out with weapons research, helping to develop, among other things a radio proximity fuse for shells and what is believed to be the first fully automated guided missile to be successfully used in combat. It developed one of the first modern computers.

It developed a broad array of new measurement services and techniques – calibration services of kinds, and an extensive catalog of standard reference materials ranging from special steel alloys to such exotica as freeze-dried powdered pine needles.

Those are used to calibrate some environmental measurements, in case you were wondering.

State-of-the-art research programs were established at the frontiers of chemistry and physics to support the search for newer and better ways to measure things.

Through all the changes and developments, however, the core mission remained essentially the same – provide U.S. science and industry with the measurement technology and measurement science it needed.

In the 1980's, history repeated itself.

The 1980's saw another technology crisis in the U.S.

The postwar period, from about 1948 to 1973, had been one of reasonably strong annual productivity growth in the U.S. The nation moved out a wartime economy, there was a general era of national optimism. Business forged ahead. I'm simplifying the details, of course.

The watershed came in 1973 with the oil embargo and the resulting energy crisis. That signaled the beginning of a long period of low or stagnant productivity growth and economic growth.

Once again I'm simplifying. There were a lot of factors in that period, both concrete and psychological – President Jimmy Carter's famous "national malaise".

The chaotic end to the Vietnamese War was a serious blow to the nation's self-image.

The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island was a serious blow to faith in technology.

Business investment, especially in long-term technology R&D, got tighter and tighter.

By the mid-80's the decline of U.S. industrial fortunes was a subject of major policy debate. There was talk of the "rust-belt", the decline of the great manufacturing industries of the mid-west and northeast.

Key U.S. industries – steel, automobiles, electronics, semiconductors – were losing market share or moving off-shore. Experts pointed to the "de-industrialization" of key industries.

R&D investment horizons continued a long-term trend toward shorter and shorter pay-back periods as companies struggled to compete in an increasingly global market.

But technological innovation was recognized as the driving force behind economic growth.

The Bureau of Standards itself in 1987 issued a short survey of expert opinion on the key "emerging technologies" that were expected to drive economic growth over the next decade – and the structural barriers in the U.S. that would hamper our development of those technologies.

High on the list was the need to combat disincentives to long-range technology R&D.

Against this background, Congress in the late 80s decided to take another look at the Bureau of Standards that it had established nearly 90 years before to meet the crisis in measurement technology.

There were now many more national laboratories and research establishments, but NBS remained the only one with a primary focus – and a long track record – of directly serving industry.

Congress decided to build on the existing technical strengths of the NBS labs to craft a new tool to meet the technology needs of industry in this new global environment. The mechanism was the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988.

The Act radically restructured the agency. Two major new programs were added

  • The Advanced Technology Program, to foster longer-range innovative R&D by industry; and
  • The Manufacturing Extension Partnership, to aid small manufacturers in adopting and making the best use of the new technologies entering the manufacturing sector.

We had a new mission, to proactively support and foster technical innovation in the U.S. To make the message explicit, the Congress also changed our name to the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Which is how technology got in our name.

So let's get down to cases. How do we accomplish this mission today? What is the NIST strategy for fostering technological innovation?

It begins with our core mission: measurements and standards. The measurement infrastructure that makes technology development possible.

This is, and has been for 100 years, a moving target. The constant challenge for NIST is to stay current with industry's needs for measurement support. Nowhere do we see this more acutely than in semiconductor electronics, where the unrelenting drive summed up in Moore's Law has constantly pushed the critical feature size in integrated circuits smaller and smaller, constantly challenging are ability to provide the measurement standards that the industry needs to monitor and control these processes.

Today's frontier is nanoscale electronics. Industry projections anticipate the need for reliable measurement standards below 70 nanometers in just a few years. The Scanning Electron Microscopes traditionally used for such measurements are too inaccurate at that level.

To meet these needs, we are developing new fabrication techniques and measurement technologies based on actually counting planes of atoms in a perfect silicon crystal to provide the industry with a reliable nanoscale "yardstick".

Many experts expect the next stage of electronics to move to molecular electronics and quantum-scale devices. Measuring the electrical properties of single molecules – measurements which must be reproducibly tied to international electrical standards – raises unique challenges.

In a new effort begun this year, NIST researchers are using nanofabrication and Nano-Electro-Mechanical Systems processing techniques to build test structures to assess the electrical properties and reliability of "moletronic" molecules. The goal is to provide a NIST standard suite of molecular test structures and – just as importantly – a fundamental understanding of how electrical charge moves through molecules and molecular ensembles.

And those are some of the challenges just in one narrow field, no matter how important.

The reality that NIST faces is that technological innovation at the forefront of most fields involves significant measurement challenges that must be met.

I'll give you another, very different, example from biotechnology, one of the most innovative disciplines today.

In both analytical and biotech industries, there has been tremendous interest in recent years in the development of chip-based technologies incorporating microfluidics. These complex labs-on-a-chip are expected to have a huge impact on point-of-care screening, providing critical diagnostic information rapidly and inexpensively.

For these innovative devices to become commercially viable – for physicians to rely on their accuracy and reliability – the chemistries performed in the microchannels has to be well understood and well-controlled. Do the reagents mix thoroughly? Are the temperature distributions even along the channel? How do surface characteristics affect flow and how do you control them?

To meet these needs we've pioneered microfabrication methods to design and build plastic microfluidic devices, and recently developed several techniques to measure flow and temperature in plastic microchannels, and to adjust that flow with laser micropatterning.

New measurement technologies are an obvious aid to innovation, but NIST can also significantly help industrial innovation simply by providing information - very high quality information.

In the ceramics industry, for example, they use data called phase diagrams to understand and control the properties of advanced industrial ceramics in a broad range of fields from machining to electronics. For decades we have worked in collaboration with the American Ceramic Society to collect analyze and evaluate ceramic phase diagrams to ensure that industry had the best available data.

In 1964 we published our first volume of authoritative phase diagrams. In 1992 we launched the first computerized version of the data. By 1995 we were issuing the data and CD-ROMs and today we are transitioning to a new system that will include a Web-based version and will incorporate all the current data and thousands of older diagrams and commentaries that were never digitized.

A recent survey of industrial users revealed that without this work by NIST and the American Ceramic Society, industry would have to spend ten times what it now does to get the same information.

Legal information can be as important as technical information to the entrepreneurial firm.

One important service NIST provides is to work with other U.S. standards bodies, such as ANSI, to promote worldwide acceptance of U.S. test and calibration data to facilitate the marketing of U.S. products abroad. We recently launched a free Internet-based service called "Export Alert!" that automatically notifies interested businesses when foreign governments propose regulations that might influence the treatment of U.S. exports.

Of course sometimes we help innovation by, well, innovating.

Back in the mid-80s a NIST engineer invented a device called a "laser tracker". Once locked on a reflective target, the automated laser system would follow it as it moved around, relaying precise data on the target's position from moment to moment.

The laser tracker was commercialized by industry and has become the instrument of choice for making precise measurements on very large objects, such as airplanes. McDonnell Douglas Aerospace in St. Louis, for example, estimates that laser tracking saves them nearly a million dollars each year.

As a result, we invented ourselves into a new measurement job. Our recent work has been aimed at improved ways to calibrate laser tracking machines. So far we've managed to reduce the calibration cycle from five days to just over five hours.

While our measurement labs support industrial innovation largely by providing a technical infrastructure, NIST's Advanced Technology Program was established to provide direct funding support for innovation.

The ATP, you remember, was one of the new programs created by the Congress for the reconfigured NIST in direct response to the R&D environment of the 70's and 80's.

The ATP's premise is straightforward:

There are many potential new technologies that would be good for the nation and the nation's economy because of the new capabilities, the new products, the new services they would enable.

But individual companies will not invest in the R&D to create all of these technologies because some of them are too technically risky, too out on the edge. And while the potential rewards to the economy might justify it, the potential rewards to any one company will not.

Opportunities like that make up the ATP's portfolio. The program provides cost-sharing funds for selected projects, reducing industry's risks to an acceptable level and pushing out the envelope of technology R&D.

Since it's first awards more than ten years ago, the ATP has had some notable achievements:

  • The entire field of "gene chips", miniaturized devices that enable rapid, inexpensive DNA testing, was effectively launched by a series of ATP projects at companies like Affymetrix in the mid-90s.
  • ATP technology underlies an innovative process for converting corn sugar into a biodegradable plastic for fabrics or packaging. As a result Cargill Dow LLC has built a major manufacturing plant in Blair, Nebraska to turn out the first commercial polymer that comes completely from renewable resources.
  • And if you've seen this month's issue of Nature magazine, you might recognize the Cover Pig as Joy, one of five genetically modified, cloned, pigs born last December as part of an ATP project at PPL Therapeutics to develop technologies leading to xenotransplant therapies for humans.

One feature of the ATP is that its technologies are proposed by industry, and don't have to match up with any particular government mission.

We've funded an astonishing wide range of technologies from aquaculture to x-ray lithography, and including manufacturing technologies, parallel-processing software, biotech, advanced catalysts, composite materials, and fuel cells to name only a few.

A recent analysis of the first 50 completed ATP projects underscores some features of the program:

The ATP promotes collaboration – almost 85 percent of the projects involve some collaboration – and half of the projects file for at least one patent.

Four out of five projects have either launched a new product on the market or plan to soon, a statistic that is all the more remarkable when you consider that the ATP does not fund the product-development stage. The companies must do that on their own.

Over much of its history the ATP has suffered from continuing controversy and debate. I'm happy to report, however, that after having conducted a thorough review of the program the Secretary of Commerce, Donald Evans, has proposed a number of modifications to the ATP that he feels we meet the objections of opponents while leaving the ATP basic mission intact.

We look forward to these changes bringing a new stability to the program and enabling even greater results in the future.

Another program created with our new name is now called the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

The MEP works not so much by creating new technologies as by help to disseminate them.

The program is a nationwide network of more than 400 centers and field offices, serving all 50 states and Puerto Rico. The centers are established though cost-shared, cooperative arrangements between NIST, state and local governments, and local extension service providers. Each center uses the network, coordinated by NIST, to help strengthen the technological capability, productivity, and global competitiveness of small manufacturers by providing access to industrial resources, services, and expertise.

Their clientele are the more than 355,000, small manufacturing establishments that make vital contributions to the U.S. economy. About 99 percent of U.S. manufacturers are small to medium-sized. They account for over half the total value of U.S. production and employ nearly 12 million people, more than two-thirds of all U.S. manufacturing employment.

As an example of their work, this past year the MEP launched a program to develop an e-Business Demonstration Testbed that will be used by MEP centers nationwide to simulate a wide variety of e-business applications to show their small manufacturing clients how to capitalize on the business opportunities offered by the Internet.

Finally NIST participates in a unique partnership with the private sector to manage the Baldrige National Quality Award.

The Baldrige National Quality Program helps U.S. businesses and other organizations continuously improve their competitiveness and productivity by adopting performance and quality management practices.

The program helps many types of companies and organizations deliver ever-improving value to customers, while improving overall organizational effectiveness.

I consider the Baldrige program an unqualified success story.

A study released last fall by researchers from the University of North Carolina and Dartmouth College, estimated that the total economic benefits to the U.S. economy provided by the Baldrige program since its inception came to almost $25 billion.

That's a benefit-to-cost ratio of 207 to 1.

That's tough to beat.

So that's our take on innovation, and how you help it along.

For the immediate future, I expect us to be doing more work in

  • information technology,
  • health science,
  • nanotechnology, and
  • homeland security

to address our national needs for continued economic and national security.

In terms of broader trends, over the last few years NIST has

  • devoted an increasing fraction of its budget to direct help for industry
  • become more collaborative, working more and more with other groups to increase our effectiveness; and
  • become more global in scope, we have more and more interactions around the world.

I think, for one thing, we're becoming a graduate studies program for China. At the moment we have more than 30 guest researchers from China working on projects from computer modeling to cement additives to the behavior of superfluids. Almost all of them are graduate students from one university or another, and we're very glad to have them with us.

I fully expect these trends to continue. The number of national economies fully participating in world markets will continue to grow, and to fulfill our mission NIST will need to work more and more with them.

The case of the remarkable growth of the Pacific Rim into an economic power is instructive.

China itself has progressed through the three stages of economic growth to become a major economic power, exporting to the world.

It is becoming an important trading partner of the U.S., and we look forward to developing closer ties and working together to build the future world economy.

Thank you.

Created October 13, 2009, Updated October 24, 2016