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NIST Centennial Gala: Sherwood Boehlert

It's a delight and a privilege to join with you this evening to celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. And I have to say that the timing of this event is auspicious for me, in particular. It's great to be assuming the chairmanship of the House Science Committee as NIST is celebrating its centenary because the existence of NIST is concrete proof that Congress can get some things right when it comes to science and technology policy.

Establishing NIST was one of the very first and one of the most important actions Congress took at the dawn of the 201h Century – a century that was to see technology and standardization change our world as never before. And we are still reaping the rewards of that foresight as we begin the 21st Century.

I have to note, though, that while NIST is richly deserving of tonight's gala; the festivities are a little out of character for NIST, which from the start has gone about its business in an unassuming, even inconspicuous way. Even the law that created the laboratory didn't have a name – it was known by the rather plain and workaday designation, "the Act of March 3, 1901" – a date that has lived in neither infamy nor fame, a date that no schoolchild has been forced to memorize.

Given NIST's "nose-to-the-grindstone" work ethic, its stream of consistent productivity without fanfare, its focus on the essential but largely invisible foundations of modem technology, one might think that a good title for a history of NIST's first century would be "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

But how extraordinarily misleading that would be – because the actual secret of NIST's success has been its "partnerships" – partnerships with the private sector, partnerships with other federal agencies and laboratories, partnerships with state and local Governments. NIST is well known to the people who keep our economy healthy, and it's NIST's ability to work with just about anybody that has kept it fresh, vital and valuable as fundamental a key to American prosperity as it was the day it was created.

NIST is a worthy and needed partner because its mission is problem-solving. NIST was established to help bring rationality to the profusion of standards that were afflicting the United States at the turn of the last century – a profusion that could have tragic consequences when, for example, major fires could not be extinguished because of varying standards for hoses and hydrants. And that problem-solving ethos has been maintained to this very day – whether NIST is probing abstruse questions about the molecular structure of ceramics, or helping to ensure the security of our computers, or providing guidance to a small manufacturer on how to update his operations through the Manufacturing Extension Program.

And we also still draw on NIST's expertise to solve problems that are endemic to the economy as a whole – with the Advanced Technology Program, for example, which has helped a wide variety of companies pass through the so-called "valley of death" that can prevent good research ideas from becoming good processes or products.

But tonight's focus is not on the past – although NIST's record of accomplishment provides plenty of cause for celebration. We're really here to make a down payment on the future by showing all the current and former directors and staff at NIST how grateful we are for their dedication, their imagination and their insight. Working steadily and fruitfully outside the limelight, they have enabled our nation's reputation for technological progress to shine.

Now it's hard to know what the technology of tomorrow will look like. History is littered with embarrassingly misguided predictions – a few of them even uttered in hearings before the House Science Committee. But I think it's safe to say that, whatever the technology of the future is, NIST will have played a role in its creation, enhancement or propagation.

So I want again to thank everyone who has made NIST a success and to pledge to all of you that I will do my best to ensure that NIST continues to set the standard for what a federal lab should be. Thank you.

Created October 14, 2009, Updated October 24, 2016