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NCSL International 2011, Keynote Address: NIST and NCSLI: Working Together to Support the Nation's Measurement System

It's a pleasure to be here this morning and to kick off an anniversary celebration like the one we're here to have this week.  Of all the anniversary events you can have, of course, a golden anniversary is one that has special significance for all of us, and that probably stems from our tradition of celebrating wedding anniversaries. Just making it to your golden anniversary is, of course, a major milestone. But I think in the life of an organization, a golden anniversary is still a major milestone. And one way to think about it is to look back over just the journey we've taken together in the realm of measurement science over the past 50 years.

We've gone from enormous advances in technology—in the state of the art of measurement science, if you think back to 1960, our wavelength standard was using krypton 86 and interferometers giving us accuracy of several parts per 100 million. Today we use, of course, frequency-stabilized lasers, frequency combs and [they] are many, many orders of magnitude more accurate. And, of course, all of this advance in innovation and measurement science has led to similar advances in the technology that we all support. It's really unleashed what most of us recognize as the foundation of our own economy and our lives with the pervasive role of computing; something that was not true in the early 1960s. The pervasive use of electronics and personal electronics, advances in aerospace, health care—pretty much every aspect of our lives that we touch today has been addressed by the hard work of this organization's supporting the development of that technology.

So it's a great celebration, and one of the things I think an anniversary forces you to do is to reflect on how we got here. This is one of those celebrations that certainly causes us to look back, and so one of the questions I was asking myself when I was invited to do this was to think about what were the drivers that led to the creation of the National Conference of Standards Laboratories back in 1961. I have to confess, this is a little bit of a risky topic for me.  I'm not as old as the NCSL. And there are many folks in the audience here, of course, who have been really part of that history. So, if you will, give me that license to sort of live vicariously through others. 

If we think back at that time, there's a couple of observations that jumped out to me. One of them was to think about where the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) was at that time. In 1961, the National Bureau of Standards was a little over 60 years old—60 years old, in fact, exactly—it was founded 1901.  And it was just coming off a very pivotal [time] in its own history.  Following the Second World War, it had to rapidly reinvent itself, casting off many of the activities it had done in support of the war effort and refocusing itself very extensively on its core metrology mission in supporting these enormous advances that were occurring in industry and also in supporting the nation's needs as it moved into, from a hot war posture, if you will, to the cold war posture, the beginning of the space age, things of that type.

And NIST was under the leadership of Dr. Astin and had really made this transition and was widely recognized as one of the leading measurement science agencies in the world. It was about to start construction on a new home in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I think the first building started construction in 1961, and so it was a very positive time for the agency. If you think about where the country was at that time, this was really in the heyday of the post-Sputnik expansion of science and technology in the United States. We were about to launch the Apollo space program. Technological superiority had strong connotations of national defense and national security that we were all dependent on. There was a great optimism in the country that science and technology were going to unleash, really, new advances in how we would live our lives, the quality of life, addressing poverty, making all of our lives easier.

And so the first real view of an innovation-based economy was becoming quite apparent at that time. In fact, Bill Wildhack, associate director of NBS, gave a talk at that time, as NCSL was founded, called "Averting the Measurement Pinch." It was published in Scientific American, and it really talked about the fact that there were measurement barriers to innovation. And so the recognition that measurement science played a key enabling role was apparent, even at that time. There was also a recognition that we had to do something different if we were going to make all of this happen. There was a recognition that we had to work together, and I think the origins of that recognition came from the fact that the role to support this technology through measurements was not one that was going to be borne by the Bureau of Standards by itself. There were dozens and dozens of private-sector standards laboratories, there were major industries, there was a defense industrial base that was growing rapidly, and we needed all of these partners to work together to support us, because the practice of measurement is not confined into a government agency. In fact, it's the important...most important part of the practice of measurement is what happens when you're putting it to meaningful use in the making and production and use of technology.

And so those concerns about how do we create a vehicle where the public sector and private sector can work together, where we can work together to build a measurement system for the country, and that we can act together to steward this new field of measurement science and prove and share best practices, work on training, do all of these important things, the National Conference on Standards Laboratories was born.  It was founded with folks working from the Bureau of Standards laboratories in Boulder—at that time our newest set of facilities. And, in fact, it was born out of an ad hoc committee of the Conference on Standards in Electronic Measurements that was held in June 1960 in Boulder. And Harvey Lance, who was chief of the Electronic Calibration Center and later chief of the Radio Standards Engineering Division, suggested that an association of standards laboratories be established to support this endeavor.  And a year later, which is quite efficient in organizational lifetimes, this organization was established in Los Angeles and then the first conference held a year later in Boulder, Colorado.  And that's the beginning of our 50-year history so far.

There's a couple interesting things about this organization over that lifetime. One is, it has always enjoyed a very close, unique, and very productive working relationship with the National Bureau of Standards and later at NIST. NIST provided sponsorship. It has ebbed and flowed over the times I think. It's provided direct support staff. In fact in the beginning, it provided the facilities to house the organization. NCSL provided critical advocacy for the National Bureau of Standards and for NIST. It was invited many times to speak to Congress and to talk about the state of measurement science in the United States and what the needs, what the federal government could do to support industry in this regard. It developed needed reports both to the community itself in terms of best practices, but also provided an analysis to NIST. NCSL provided a measurement needs analyses that defined the critical measurement gaps in the United States and these were used as the basis for recommendations for the programs at NBS and NIST. We worked together when we redefined the measurement system. When the SI units were redefined, NSCL was integral to working with NIST to understand the ramifications of those changes and to work with the community to disseminate those throughout the standards laboratories to their members to explain the impact of these changes to everybody and to make sure that these changes happened very smoothly and flawlessly. And I think this field was well-served by the stewardship of this organization. NCSL led and really drove the wide adaption of quality management practices in the standards laboratories and, in fact, called for NIST to work with them in developing the accreditation of calibration laboratories. So that capability was added to NAVLAP. We received many letters of support from NCSL lab managers at that time and, of course, NAVLAP now accredits over a hundred calibration laboratories across North America and Asia.

So we have this remarkable track record of probably one of the most formative times, certainly in terms of technology in this country, of providing sort of this critical function to support technology through measurement science. This organization was also at the forefront of a change that took other organizations a little longer to realize, which was the fact that metrology is global. NCSL recognized this. As markets globalized, the organization reflected that. It welcomed its first non-U.S. membership by 1974, and that membership grew to include board members, directors, and finally, was formally renamed NCSLI in the year 2000. So it's a remarkable history to celebrate together.

The other thing golden anniversaries do, of course, is they get you to start reflecting on what's going to happen next, and we have a great advantage before us today. One of the real advantages of having the kind of history that we have—50 years of working together effectively, closely, internationally, to advance our cause—is that the hard work of building and convening this group has been done by the many of you who work to make it happen. It's an enormous achievement, and we don't have to start from scratch. It also means that we've built a number of core competencies and strengths that we can use to build on.

But at the same time, a 50-year history of remarkable achievements has a great weakness as well. And that weakness is called complacency. It's easy to sit back and use the inertia of the past 50 years to fail to think about what changes are going to be going forward. And I think there are some reasons that we should take this warning seriously. Our work is largely work that's behind the scenes; people don't see it. In fact to some extent, you could argue we're a victim of our own success. Many of our own key stakeholders in industry and in the government do not understand the measurement system that operates behind the scenes to make all of these happen, and I don't think we want to demonstrate it to them by starting to break it. So, there is a challenge that we face by having done our jobs so well behind the curtains, if you will. The technology we support—in fact technology is really the measurement, understanding, and control of nature—is changing more rapidly than ever. The national needs that we face, I know as leading a public agency like NIST, those are constantly being redefined and changed to meet the needs of the country. And we are operating in what is obvious to everybody now in a fully integrated global economy. Global markets, global production, and global interaction between governments. It's particularly true of metrology. And I think we all can recognize that there are some warning signs before us that we should all pay attention to.

Workforce. It's an interesting—you know, we talked about the role of the cold war. Between 1959, just before NCSLI was founded, and the year 1993 when I first join NIST, the Defense Department alone trained approximately 50,000 precision measurement equipment laboratory technicians; over a thousand individuals per year were trained. That number today has dropped by over 80 percent. So we all know this, we are all concerned about where the workforce we need is going to come from. I know we're all working hard, many of you are working very hard on developing education and outreach activities to support this need. I know there's been dialogue between certainly NIST and NCSLI on concerns we have, friction if you will, in the system between: Are we responsive enough? Is NIST meeting the needs of this community well enough? Or conversely, is this organization relevant to supporting NIST in providing the guides it needs? These types of discussions, while a natural part of any relationship between two organizations, are also indicative of some internal friction in purpose.

We also run into a little friction about business models, cost, budgets, and we all share a problem about making our case, about validating the work we do and making sure that our stakeholders, or our constituencies, understand why measurement science is so important and why the work we do is so critical. And, of course, we care about that, because we need the support of others to be able to carry out the work we do.

So, I think this 50-year history is the foundation we want to build on, but we should not be negligent about our relationship. We should work hard to, in fact, build on it and renew it, and so I think an anniversary is often a call for renewing of commitment. And so the question I sort of want to ask everyone is: what will our next 50 years look like? Will somebody be standing in front of this organization 50 years from now celebrating an even more remarkable 50 years or not? And I think the answer is going to be yes, if this organization and the relationship we have is one that's responsive to the needs of that period of time. And the answer is probably no, if we simply roll on inertia and do what we've always done.

So one of the questions I was asking myself is if we didn't have NCSL, this history, would we create it today? And so, one of the questions I asked: Are high-quality, reliable, interoperable measurements, is that infrastructure needed today? I think you know the answer to that. Is technology still evolving rapidly? Do we need the capacity to keep measurement science at the cutting edge? I think you know the answer to that. Do public and private needs still depend on the technology that's enabled by our work? I would say, more than ever. And do we still need to work together to make this happen? I think again, more than ever. So I suspect that even if we didn't have this 50 years of history of working together, we might be standing here today talking about this need to do exactly what we've been doing. We might very well be calling for the creation of NCSLI. And these obvious answers to these questions still frame our overall goals.

We must have an ability to disseminate the practice of measurement into meaningful use into the industries and economies that we support. We still must ensure that the state-of-the art measurement science is at, or past the state of the art in technology. And we must have a mechanism where we can work together, because there is no one place that holds all of the capacity that's needed, and that's never been more true than it is today. So I think we would be creating this organization today, and we are in the very happy position of being able to build on an existing organization to make it happen.

So if these core drivers are still the same, what has changed? Well, the measurement frontier is evolving as rapidly as ever. And in fact, our emerging technology areas are ones that are fundamentally enabled by measurement. Nanotechnology is a classic example. It really is all about the power that comes with the ability to measure and control at these very small length scales. The unique properties that occur when you're down to these length scales are ones that are simply...they were always there, but they were fundamentally enabled by our ability to measure and control. Same is true in biological sciences. The biotechnology revolution that's on us and coming is fundamentally enabled by the rapid advances in our understanding of biology, but it's also based upon our ability to do quantitative biology—the measure and control of the molecular and cellular level of what's happening, with the remarkable advances that we expect to see in biologic drugs, personalized medicine, disease, detection and tissue engineering, all enabled by these advances. Information-enabled technologies, again at the forefront with rapid advances in quantum computing, communications, and a whole set of new work around big data and what it means. Advanced manufacturing, especially in the realm of advanced materials, unfolding at an unprecedented rate.

So, the measurement science frontiers are not a solved problem. In fact, there still is challenge—more challenging than ever and calls upon us to stay at the cutting edge. The national drivers that depend on technology are also evolving. Our energy and climate needs are clearly viewed by policy makers as having technology solutions at their heart. That was true for NIST, as it moved into looking at standards supporting smart grid technologies. It's also true as we look at the tremendous measurement challenge of combining satellite and ground-based temperature and climate measurements over decades—one of the really most difficult measurement challenges I can think of. Sustainability, and that challenge that will pose to our countries is one that will be enabled and supported by the technologies we use to support it.  Health care, our ability to improve the quality of life of citizens around the globe, from diagnostics, advanced diagnostics, to personalized medicine, will be supported by technology.  Food and product safety in the global market will be enabled fundamentally by our ability to do advanced measurements. Our safety as citizens, both from international disruptions from cybercrime and virtual-type crime, all the way to providing our law enforcement community with the tools they need to do forensic science and to investigate and prosecute crimes, increasingly dependent on measurement science and technology.

So, and probably the most important of all, something that I think has risen to the forefront in every country that I'm aware of, certainly it's been the forefront of U.S. policy in this administration, is the notion that above and beyond all of the specific national need areas where technology plays a key role, technology itself is the center piece of economic growth.  Our prosperity as countries depends upon knowledge creation and the ability to develop new products and services. And so, our capacities as countries to develop, manufacture, use, and deploy advanced technologies are at the heart of our economic features. So, innovation-based economies are fundamentally supported by the measurement science we support. And these areas have enormous ramifications.

One example that's quite interesting—very simple measurement—but vaccines. Every year, about a trillion dollars worth of vaccines are produced. The Centers for Disease Control in the United States estimates today that at least 30 percent of those vaccines are rendered useless because of chain of custody, control problems in their distribution. They're allowed to get too hot or too cold before they're administered. Thirty percent of that remainder spoil without the staff's knowledge and are administered even though they are no longer effective. So all told, we're looking at about half of this incredibly important product is wasted. What's the answer to that? Well, it turns out it's measurement and, in fact, there's a NIST group that has been working on a simple step-by-step process using thermometry and looking at the chain of custody that, if applied, would solve this problem by making sure that refrigerator and transfer protocols are set up so the vaccines are protected from place to place, and there would be tell-tales to indicate when spoilage had occurred. Simple example from our world in terms of applied measurement science, but ones with enormous societal impact.

This organization has already recognized these growth areas. NCSLI, in the committee structure that you're going to be working on this week, already has active committees looking at forensic science, looking at energy and new energy technology areas, looking at health and health care, looking at the basic practice of our field in uncertainty and traceability. And I applaud this organization for staying at the cutting edge, where these advances are going to occur.

I can tell you, at NIST, we are working as hard as we can to make sure that our agency is supporting your work and supporting the needs of technology in the United States. Since I became director in 2009, I reorganized the NIST laboratory structure, from one of the discipline-based laboratories to a set of mission-based laboratories. The key difference being, in a mission-based laboratory, the research activities of that laboratory have been recombined with the delivery of measurement services to the customers that use that research. So, we're trying to increase our focus on not just the cutting-edge research, but on the utilization transfer of that research into practice.

We have also reinvigorated our role in supporting standards development. As many of you know, in the United States, standards development is a private-sector-led activity. In fact, by law, the U.S. federal government is to look towards the private sector for the standards it needs to carry out its functions. Now, there are hundreds of standards development organizations in the private sector, and one of the ways the government is supposed to work with this diverse group of standards organizations is through NIST. NIST was given the very specific and special mandate of coordinating federal agencies' use of standards. And in my opinion, this is a responsibility that we didn't take seriously enough. So, we have raised this to a much more strategic level. Working with the White House, we created the first-ever subcommittee on standards through the White House's National Science and Technology Council. And we've worked with that council to develop a set of criteria for when the federal government asserts more of a leadership role. So, we're taking this responsibility very seriously. We've focused our resources on funding areas of critical national need and emerging technologies, and we will do everything we can to improve our performance, our role in this measurement science endeavor.

And, of course, I look to this organization as one of my key partners to help me define what those needs are and to help us work together on that. NIST still needs the NCSLI, more than ever. Our laboratory work at NIST, as wonderful as it is, will have limited impact if it cannot be translated into meaningful use in the field. Our research will not be properly focused if we don't listen to the practitioners who apply it and learn what the industry drivers are. And we will all be weakened if we cannot explain our value, the value of our work to our key stakeholders—if we don't build a constituency together that understands the great value that we provide to society. None of us will be effective if we don't have access to the talent or resources that translate our need into practice.

And so on the occasion of this 50th anniversary celebration, let's also reflect on what we can do to renew our commitment to work together. I'm delighted to have had this opportunity to talk to you today, and I am looking forward to working with all of you.

Thank you very much.

Created September 16, 2011, Updated October 8, 2016