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Honorary President's Address at the 99th Annual NCWM meeting

Thanks, Carol, for that very gracious introduction. Good morning, everyone

I'd like to thank Chairman Gaccione and Don Onweiler of NCWM for again inviting me to present the annual Honorary President's Address.

It's great to be here in the Motor City. Detroit has given this country so much, considering the pioneering work that has been done here. This city has, in many ways, laid the foundation for the United States as we know it today. It kindled our love affair with the automobile and with the freedom it represents.

Detroit is known for its history of innovation. It's where the assembly line was born, as well as the first paved road, the first traffic light, the first freeway, the first international tunnel, and most importantly, the first automatic coffeemaker.

Some people think that Detroit's best days are behind it, but I have to disagree. For a while, we were a nation that had stopped making things, but we've started to see that trend reverse, and I believe that this city can, and will, turn itself around. While there is still a lot to be done to regain our momentum, automakers in this town have begun doing some very innovative things. I'm really looking forward to seeing what the future holds.  

NIST and Detroit actually have something in common. For one, we were both born about the same time.

NIST was founded in 1901 to perform measurement research vital to industry and to provide a framework for the preservation and faithful dissemination of standard measurement units, which are vital to industrial and scientific progress and to commerce.

Eight years later, in 1909, the first Model T rolled off the line. Between 1920 and 1930, the number of cars registered in the United States leapt from 9 million to 26.5 million, and well over half of them were Model T's, and nearly all of them were built right here—in Detroit.

Geologists at the time believed that the supply of oil would be gone in as little as 10 years, so some of NIST's first research related to the automobile industry was concerned with improving fuel economy. We worked to improve ignition systems, carburetors, and lubricants, as well as the quality of the gasoline.

Working with the U.S. Army, we published performance metrics for engines, fuels, and lubricating oils. We tested brakes, driver reaction times—and in the 1960s, NIST research was also integral to seat belt and car safety standards. And still today, we have a number of collaborations with, and provide measurement services for, the automotive industry.

Our new Center for Automotive Lightweighting is working to help the industry make vehicles that are much lighter in weight, but just as safe. We're providing the data the industry needs to reliably manufacture vehicle components from lightweight substitutes, including aluminum alloys, high-strength steels, and polymer composites.

A lighter automobile needs less fuel to move a given distance, whether that's gasoline, or diesel, electricity, hydrogen, liquefied natural gas, or some hybrid approach. Using less fuel means lower emissions and better air quality. While we love going for a drive, frankly, most of the time we're driving, we're really just trying to get home.

And we've made some real innovations concerning energy-efficient homes as well.
We constructed and demonstrated the efficacy of a "net-zero energy home" that looks just like any home in suburbia and yet generates as much energy as it needs. And our researchers did it with commercially available technologies and without sacrificing anything in terms of creature comforts or energy usage.

NIST has also been active in our role as an organizer, bringing stakeholders to the table to solve common problems that would be difficult for them to solve on their own.

This past February, NIST released the first version of our cybersecurity framework. We brought people from the nation's financial, energy, health care, and other critical sectors together to work out a way that they could better protect their information and physical assets from cyber attack.

The framework describes the characteristics of a comprehensive cybersecurity program, complete with standards, guidelines, and practices that organizations of any size can use to manage their risks.

The framework is voluntary. It's not a prescription. And it's a living document. It is open to constant revision as the information security landscape changes, but it is a starting point, and a way forward to ensuring that at least the most vital sectors of our infrastructure are hardened against hackers.
On another cybersecurity-related note: due to the allegations made in one of the Edward Snowden leaks, we (NIST) charged our primary independent advisory panel, the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT) to oversee a review of our Cryptographic Standards and Guidelines Development Process. The allegation was in regard to a faulty random number generator baked into a Cybersecurity Standard that NIST obtained from NSA.
The VCAT asked a blue ribbon Committee of Visitors (COV) to assess NIST's existing cryptographic standards and guidelines and the process by which those standards and guidelines are developed. Each COV member provided an independent report to the VCAT. That "blue ribbon" Committee of Visitors included:

  • Vint Cerf of Google,
  • Edward Felten of Princeton University,
  • Steve Lipner of Microsoft Corporation,
  • Bart Preneel of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven,
  • Ellen Richey of Visa Inc.,
  • Ron Rivest of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and
  • Fran Schrotter of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

The VCAT took this input and made recommendations to NIST that fall into four basic categories. They asked that we:

  • Assure that our (NIST's) process for producing standards and best practices is open and transparent,
  • Increase our capability and capacity in cryptography—so that we were not dependent on NSA for input,
  • Increase the involvement of the cryptographic community, including academia and industry, in our standards-development process, and
  • Review and clarify our relationship with NSA.

Following up on something that I discussed with you last year, NIST and the Department of Justice have also just recently named the members to the first Forensic Science Standards Board, which we established to improve the scientific basis of forensic evidence used in courts of law.

Some of you may be surprised to learn that, much like the nation's weights and measures system used to be, there are few national standards or uniformity in forensic science. The confidence that a forensic scientist has in how well a piece of evidence connects a suspect to a crime is largely a matter of his interpretation. It may not be based on any objective standards.

This lack of national uniformity is reflected in every forensic science discipline. How many points of comparison do you need to say, conclusively, that a fingerprint found at a crime scene belongs to the suspect? What about the marks left on a shell casing or even DNA?

A new forensic science board, which is modeled on the structure of the NCWM, will be dedicated to answering these questions, and to establishing a uniform system of national standards that will ensure that evidence is collected, analyzed, and interpreted the same, no matter where a crime is committed.

No one wants to see the innocent go to prison for crimes they didn't commit. When the innocent go to prison, the guilty go free. Objective standards will help improve our justice system.   

NIST's initiative in advanced communications got a boost earlier this year when the former operations director for our labs in Boulder, Colo., Kent Rochford, returned from a year and a half stint with Sharp Electronics to lead our new Communication Technology Laboratory and Center for Advanced Communications—a joint venture with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The proliferation of cell phones and other communications technologies has begun to really eat up the electromagnetic spectrum. The airwaves are simply getting crowded. The new center's mission is to advance our understanding of the wireless spectrum and to foster innovations that will make wireless communications faster and more reliable.

Now, getting back to the Motor City theme, three automakers plan to begin selling hydrogen-fueled vehicles to consumers in 2015. Now, once you have these zero-emission vehicles on the road, you need a place to fill them up. And if you are building refueling stations, you need a way to make sure that that fuel is being dispensed accurately.

Our researchers have recently completed work on a new field test apparatus to confirm the accuracy of hydrogen fuel dispensers. Once the standard is fully tested, we plan to offer it as a model for constructing "Provers" for state weights and measures inspectors to use.  

The state of California has really gotten behind hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles and is putting the infrastructure in place to support them. They've opened nine refueling stations so far, and they are funding the construction of an additional 28 stations over the next few years. They plan to fund the construction of 100 in total.

This body recently adopted standards for the sale of hydrogen. Handbook 44 reads that hydrogen will be sold by the kilogram, and that hydrogen-dispensing pumps must be accurate to within plus or minus two percent, or plus or minus 20 grams per kilogram.
So while a kilogram of hydrogen has approximately the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline, the allowable error is a little less stringent than for gasoline.

Some have argued that even these larger tolerances are too tight, and that errors as high as 10 or 20 percent should be allowed. It's hard to see how that would be fair for anyone. Our preliminary tests have shown that the flow meters used to dispense hydrogen fuel are capable of doing so with an error as little as 1 percent or less. Why would we allow less than the best measurements we can make? Shouldn't we always aim to achieve the highest accuracy, the most transparency, and the fairest system?

Mass flow meters dispense according to weight, the standard for weight in the United States is the kilogram, and it has been since 1893. It makes sense that it would be sold in the same terms in which it was measured.

I understand that you have a similar question before you this week. An important decision needs to be made regarding the sale of liquefied natural gas.

I know that people have strong opinions about this issue and that you have been studying the issue intently. NIST's scientific position is well-known, so I won't repeat it here, but I will urge you to remember the consumer when you are voting this week and remember the importance of having and promoting a rational, science-based  measurement system.

Let me close by discussing "rational measurement units."

You, know, one of the reasons that the metric system came into being is because the French had found the old way of doing things had become untenable. By the time of the French Revolution, there were as many as 250,000 different measurement units. Each commodity had its own measure, and there was little uniformity between them. There was no way to know definitively that a wine gallon in Marseilles was the same as a wine gallon in Paris—no doubt very distressing, especially if you are French. It was hard to do business without a science-based system. After a few stops and starts, the French succeeded in creating something beautiful, a system of units the entire world could use.

Back when NIST was founded, the United States was in sort of the same fix as France had been. While our nation was a signatory to the Treaty of the Meter—and its international units for measurement—the Congress, did not make its adoption mandatory. What we had was a system that we inherited from our Forbearers—some units we simply just invented in local locales. We had eight different gallons and four different feet and very little in the way of agreement between them.

Way back in 1909, when NIST and the newly formed NCWM were investigating the state of U.S. legal metrology, they found that in many of the states' "official" weights and measures were in a state of severe disrepair, if they could be found at all. In many states, even having a standard set of weights of measures was not required by law. For the most part, the state weights and measures inspector was not a paid position, and at the county level, that job usually fell to the treasurer, or even the school superintendent. A survey of over 30,000 scales being used in more than 3,000 shops and stores across the nation found half of them to woefully inaccurate and most frequently favored the shopkeeper—surprise, surprise.

But with the efforts of the hardworking men and women of the NCWM, the situation quickly improved. The people our country had resigned themselves to the thought that there would always be cheating—that a fair deal was just not to be had. There could be no trust in the marketplace. But the NCWM, and a good dose of bad press, turned that all around. The American people began to see that corruption and cheating didn't have to be the norm. They began to see that chaos did not have to reign. This body brought fairness, order, and trust to the marketplaces of this country

Now, you have gathered here to continue this noble mission. Our citizens are depending on you to look out for their interests. I urge you to remember that while you are deliberating this week. Remember that the right thing to do is not always the easiest thing to do.

I have no doubt that you will live up to this charge. Thank you for your attention.

Created September 2, 2014, Updated October 4, 2016