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Media Roundtable

Thank you Ben ... and good morning, everyone.

It is a delight to meet with you this morning and have this interchange with you. I hope this will be the first of many times that we will be able to get together. As NIST Director I would like to talk about NIST programs and the importance of those programs to the nation.

Clearly it is an honor and a tremendous responsibility to take over the directorship of NIST. I know in my hearing I did indicate that it does seem like my whole career to date in government, industry, and academia has prepared me for the role. And I consider it to be not only a daunting challenge, but also a real privilege to try to take NIST up to the next level of excellence as we enter the second 100 years of our history.

As NIST Director, I have four main goals.

  • One is to strengthen the strategic vision and direction of NIST programs that have very high importance to the nation, such as the NIST technologies that support homeland security. I would like to stress at this time that even prior to Sept. 11 many of the activities you see demonstrated here today and indicated in your fact sheets have been underway, but the events of Sept. 11 really focused our activities and gave a sense of immediacy. And our primary role now is to take whatever technologies are readily available for applications and to the standards the test methods to make them available to the public as quickly as possible so that is what we see as our initiative at this time.
  • The second goal is to foster a national standards strategy that promotes American interests and increases U.S. success in international markets. We have very robust programs and many interlocking exchanges with the national measurement institutes around the world to help carry that out and of course we support ANSI here in the United States in promulgating a national standards through the ISO.
  • Thirdly to be a good steward—supporting NIST's world-class research staff and continuing to improve our research facilities so they remain world-class; and finally
  • To provide stability to the Advanced Technology Program. As you know Secretary Evans is putting forward recommendations for reforms of the program which will help add stability to the program and I support those reforms very strongly.

I should also say parenthetically that these four goals are strongly supported not only by the senior leadership within the Department of Commerce, but also within the Technology Administration, so this enabled me to get off to a good start and a very good relationship.

NIST has a history of responding to national needs. In times of crisis NIST is available with their expertise and with our technical advice to help protect U.S. citizens from natural disasters, and other various types of threats like the terrorists threats that we are currently facing.

Now the nation needs to protect homeland security-and again NIST is ready to respond. Our researchers are providing technical support to other agencies that are involved in this national emergency, serving on investigating teams and task forces and a variety of advisory roles, in addition to carrying on the technology programs as well. And I expect this involvement will not only continue but will be amplified in the next few months.

I would like to give you a few examples of where we have been active, since Sept. 11.

Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, NIST building and fire researchers began assisting federal and local agencies to investigate the spread of fire through the buildings and their subsequent collapse.

Over the years we have developed a model for structural collapse and also for fire.

This illustrates one of the simulation models we have developed called SmokeView, which illustrates the spread of smoke shortly after the impact of the north building.

This is the fire dynamic simulator that shows the spread of fire within the building and you can see the cavity caused by the impact of the airplane.

Now these types of simulations are absolutely essential to understand, not only how fire spreads in high-rise buildings but also to understand what maximum temperature the steel saw and what actually triggered the collapse. As we improve the simulation tools it will get us closer to understanding the technical causal factors for the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Similarly when anthrax was discovered in mail sent to Senator Daschle's office, NIST participated in the White House team to try to understand how to safeguard mail that might have been exposed to anthrax. The determination at that time was that radiation would be the best way to sterilize mail exposed to bacterial agents.

NIST has a long history of developing standards, to ensure accurate radiation doses for X-ray machines, mammography, radiopharmaceuticals and other products. And so we became quite active in developing methods to ensure that we understood the effective radiation dose necessary to sterilize boxes of mail that were exposed to anthrax.

Now this is a CAT scan image of a box of mail and here you can see slices through the box which shows the density of distribution of the mail and then this gives us a baseline to identify the exact coordinates of the material distribution in the box. What we have done is put in alanine markers which are really small radiation dosimeters. Analine being an amino acid is a surrogate for anthrax. After the exposure of this detector we can then subject them to analysis and identify how effective the dose was as a result of these three-dimensional scans we can identify then what minimum effective dose is required in order to sterilize a box of mail. This has been very valuable in allowing the distribution of mail that had been exposed to anthrax.

Here's another example. This is a digital fingerprint scanner. Machines like this can quickly take high-quality fingerprints electronically distribute them to wherever needed in order to determine a match against the database for individual identification.

For over 30 years, NIST has been working with the FBI to automate this process for being able to scan their fingerprint files of over 40 million cards in order to make these kind of matches in order to support forensics research as well as to support law enforcement agencies around the country.

Under the Patriot Act recently signed into law, Congress has asked the Attorney General of the U.S. and Secretary of State to work with NIST and other agencies to develop a biometric standard to quickly identify people seeking U.S. a visa or using a visa to enter the United States.

This is one possible biometric standard that might be used, but there are many being evaluated. What we are trying to do is find one that is reliable, fast, easily collected and can be quickly matched against very large databases.

We're all familiar with metal detectors in the airports. NIST previously had developed metal standards for law enforcement agencies for use of these types of metal detectors. The Federal Aviation Administration is now interested in also using these type of metal detectors standards for setting the right level of sensitivity in not only walk through detectors, but hand-held detectors.

For example this is a commercial detector it will detect a penny in my hand. However, I can set the sensitivity of the device differently and the penny is not detected. The question is where is the balance point between detecting a razor blade, which could be lethal versus being able to facilitate a quick flow of a large number of people through an airport. Trying to find that balance point is where NIST is providing technical assistance to the FAA. So that work is continuing.

I think what I would like to do is summarize by emphasizing that NIST is fully engaged in supporting a number of federal agencies providing technical support in trying to improve our homeland security and also to protect our critical infrastructure, whether it is the national power grid, buildings, ports, or bridges. Right now the immediacy of our work is to take technology that is currently ready and make it available, make it reliable, make it accurate, and make it a dependable safeguard for the U.S. public.

And with that I'll entertain questions.

Created October 14, 2009, Updated October 24, 2016