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Strengthening the Infrastructure for 21st Century Innovation: The Critical Role of Measurements and Standards

The interstate highways, air traffic management system, and the electrical grid are ubiquitous, yet one rarely thinks about this infrastructure until a problem arises. But without this infrastructure, our economy and lives would be significantly and negatively impacted. And when the infrastructure is stressed due to congestion or bad weather—we definitely notice the impact on our daily lives.

Similar to the physical infrastructure—there is an "innovation infrastructure"—an underlying structure that helps foster innovation and transition scientific discoveries into the marketplace. And just like the physical infrastructure, when it is not functioning smoothly—significant barriers to innovation can—and do—arise.

As our economy has become more global—we do not want to compete on the basis of being the low cost supplier—that does not play to our strengths nor our long-term ambitions. Instead we want to compete on innovation—having the first and/or best product or process available. Innovative products, as opposed to commodities, maintain a higher value and, with increasing productivity, provide improved standards of living.

The goal of this morning's session "Ensuring the Social Value of the Chemical Enterprise" is to discuss the value created by research and the best way to communicate that value to society. In this talk, I will concentrate specifically on the value of the research component that supports our nation's innovation infrastructure. I will provide some examples demonstrating the impact that this type of research has on the average person—as well as some results from our own economic impact studies.

In this year's State of the Union address, the President outlined the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). The ACI will improve the nation's infrastructure for innovation and thus enhance our overall competitiveness. The ACI calls for:

  • Boosting Federal R&D spending to $137 billion next year—up more than 50 percent over the figure for 2001. The total U.S. R&D spending (government plus industry) will be over $300 billion—greater than the rest of the other G-8 countries combined.
  • Making permanent the industry R&D tax credit—and updating and expanding it.
  • Re-emphasizing our commitment to education—increasing advanced study programs and the number of science and math teachers, and extending workforce training programs.
  • Reforming our immigration policies to attract and retain the best and brightest high-skilled workers from around the world.

As part of the drive to increase the nation's investment in basic research, the President's proposal calls for doubling over the next ten years the funding for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—the science agency I head.

Why is NIST called out specifically in the ACI? Two critical components of the nation's innovation infrastructure are the direct responsibility of NIST—measurement science and standards.

In fact—it is NIST's mission to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.

I usually describe "measurement science" in an analogy to extreme sports. Like an extreme athlete—competing at the edge of human endurance, NIST's measurement science is focused at the extremes - measuring smaller objects or phenomena faster or more accurately.

If you can't measure something—you can't control it. And if you can't control it—you can't reliably manufacture it. NIST's unique role is to advance measurements and standards so that the next innovation can be realized and commercialized.

One example of how these extreme measurements enable innovation is the work of our most recent Nobel Laureate, Dr. Jan Hall. Dr. Hall transformed the laser from a laboratory curiosity to one of the fundamental tools of modern science.

His research improved the accuracy and stability with which lasers generate a specific frequency of light. Through his research, the laser frequency itself became a research tool with an accuracy of 1 part in 1015! That is amazing accuracy. That would be like measuring the distance from the Earth to the Sun with an accuracy better than the thickness of a single sheet of paper.

The development of the laser as a measurement tool enabled a series of innovations and resulted in the creation of whole new industries. These innovations include fiber-optic communications; vastly improved clocks which enable accurate navigation; precision spectroscopy for detecting minute quantities of a substance; and measurements of fundamental physical constants.

And better measurements may open up new windows on the world—literally. Take time, for example—

In 1949, NIST introduced the world's first "atomic clock," accurate to one second in 300 years. Today, its accuracy is about one second in 60 million years. And, we are looking ahead to an optical clock accurate to about one second in 30 billion years!

Clearly, back in 1949, we could not have predicted that NIST's atomic clocks would be used for setting time on personal computers and guiding deep space probes. Or that the National Association of Securities Dealers would require that all electronic transactions be stamped with a time traceable to NIST. Telecommunications, electric power transmission, transportation, and navigation (including support of the Global Positioning System) all rely on NIST time. Innovations enabled by measurement science.

In the March 2006 issue of Physics Today, Daniel Kleppner wrote about the ultimate limit of terrestrial based clocks. He posited that once clocks got to be better than about 1 part in 1018, that the tidal fluctuations within the earth would vary the gravitational geode so much that this would present the ultimate floor.

But this noise has signal—it tells you about the interior structure of the earth. Perhaps instead of being a limit, an array of such clocks can serve as a new probe of the Earth's interior dynamics. This would complement seismic data which provides stratification but not time-resolved dynamics—thus opening a new window on the world.

Another example of how measurements foster innovation—and one perhaps used by many people in this audience—is the Mass Spectral Library. This is a database we developed that contains more than 160,000 chemical compounds. While originally expected to be used primarily for environmental and health applications—industry has found novel ways of applying that data to forensics, homeland security, food and flavors research, and industrial quality control. This is a great example of how a basic infrastructural component—in this case spectral data—can be leveraged and used in many applications.

In addition to measurement science, NIST's support of the Nation's innovation infrastructure includes standards development and testing. Standards enable and support innovation and competitiveness by increasing the transaction efficiency. Standards are the common language between two parties. They describe what is being negotiated and the expected performance of the product or service. Like the grease in a wheel—standards help to keep the free market running smoothly.

Standards affect every American whose job depends on the ability of our industries to compete in global trade. In fact, an estimated 80 percent of global commerce is influenced by testing and measurement-related regulations and standards.

Providing a common ground of measurements and standards is the oldest and one of the most important NIST missions and it affects not just scientists and engineers, but every American who goes to the store, buys gasoline or pays a utility bill.

It's easy to forget that this was not always the case. In 1901, when NIST was established, there were as many as eight different standard gallons. Brooklyn, New York, recognized four different legal measures of the foot.

Standards come in many forms. There are the SI units—for example the meter, kilogram, and second. There are also documentary standards like the formats that describe ways to store digital data for movies or music. And there are standard reference data and materials. For example—NIST has a "peanut butter" standard. This is used by the FDA and companies to provide values for the amount of fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals contained in the product. Without spreading it on too thick—it is safe to say that standards impact every American every day.

The last time you filled up your car—you probably complained about the price. But it is very unlikely you questioned whether you actually received the number of gallons that the pump claims. Or, when you paid your last electricity bill—you may have noticed the price per kilowatt-hour went up—but did you worry about whether you really used the number of kilowatt-hours listed? The trust between the buyer and seller is integral to the efficient running of the economy. And this trust in the weights and measures is directly traceable to NIST's work in standards and conformance testing. This trust helps to create an efficient transaction—the "grease of the free market."

The connection between measurement science, standards, and competitiveness has been recognized for a long time. In the spring of 1900, when Congress was considering the Act that created NIST, the Committee report stated: "...that no more essential aid could be given to manufacturing, commerce, the makers of scientific apparatus, the scientific work of the Government, of schools, colleges, and universities than by the establishment of the institution..."

NIST's research plays a unique role in our nation's R&D enterprise. Reliable measurements and standards—is the nexus between academia and industry—strengthening our nation's capacity to innovate and thus compete.

So, how is it we know that measurements and standards play such an important role in terms of our economic competitiveness? Well, like everything else at NIST—we measure it.

NIST has conducted 19 economic studies to assess our impact on industry. These studies document an average direct return to the economy of $44 for every $1 spent by NIST.

Our work to develop standard reference materials for measuring the sulfur content of fuels, for example, led to improved efficiency and lower transaction costs in the fuel industry. This research led to a benefit-to-cost ratio of about 113 to one.

One of the lower economic impacts we found was developing the chemical and thermodynamic datasets for alternative refrigerants. The impetus for this research was the need to quickly replace ozone-destroying CFCs. Even with the objective being to develop "ozone friendly" refrigerants—we still achieved an economic benefit-to-cost ratio of about four to one on top of the environmental benefits.

NIST is able to demonstrate such large benefits to the Nation are because we work at the innovation infrastructure level of the economy. Advances we make support whole industries or sectors—as opposed to supporting an individual company. Thus, our advances are leveraged by large segments of the economy creating a favorable multiplier.

The American Competitiveness Initiative recognizes the tremendous impact that NIST plays in the development of the innovation infrastructure. And we are proud to be recognized for our contribution.

The ACI will give NIST the resources we need in order to give U.S. industry and science the measurement and standards tools they need to maintain and enhance our global competitiveness. Specifically, NIST will be concentrating in four thematic areas:

1. Targeting the most strategic and rapidly developing technologies.
­ We will be increasing our commitment to advancing the measurement science and standards associated with nanotechnology, quantum information science, building the hydrogen economy, and securing cyberspace.

2. Increasing the capacity and capability of critical national scientific assets.
­ We will expand the NIST Center for Neutron Research and will upgrade and expand the NIST presence at the DOE National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven. Increasing the capacity and capability at these two facilities will provide access to several hundred more academic and industrial researchers per year who study the properties of advanced materials and nanostructures.

3. Meeting the Nation's most immediate measurement needs.
­ We will address manufacturing supply chain interoperability, building codes and standards to minimize loss due to natural disasters, expand our efforts in international standards, assess the efficacy of biometrics, and improve medical imagery by converting bioimages into functional data.

4. Improving NIST physical facilities.
­ The need for accuracy in measurements requires us to upgrade some of the buildings—so that the physical environment (temperature, humidity, vibration, and cleanliness) does not become the ultimate limit to our measurement accuracy.

Let me give you a little more background on some of these projects to reinforce how NIST's role in measurement science and standards supports our economic competitiveness.

First, nanotechnology—within the next 10 years, experts predict at least half of the newly designed advanced materials and manufacturing processes will be products of nanotechnology. The global industry of nanotechnology is predicted to exceed $1 trillion by 2015.

Today, "low tech" nanoparticles are becoming prevalent—from titanium dioxide particles in sunscreen to block out UV while transmitting the visible (and hence appear transparent) to hydrophobic nanoparticles embedded in fabrics to make them stain resistant. These "low tech" nanoparticles are the first to make it into the marketplace because their manufacturing tolerances are relatively large. The size and purity of the particles do not have to be tightly controlled to effectively block UV or resist stains.

The next generation of nanoproducts, however, is likely to require tighter control on size and other properties. For example, if you want to produce a carbon nanotube of a specific length, width, and chirality—we currently have to produce a batch of nanotubes and sort through them to find the closest match. This is not a process that scales well to industry. Thus, we need to develop the measurement tools and the standards to facilitate the development of the next generation of nanoproducts. This is NIST's unique niche.

While the breakthroughs occurring in nanotechnology are amazing, equally breath-taking developments may arise by exploiting purely quantum phenomena.

Quantum mechanics plays at a scale where the normal laws of everyday experience break down and new phenomena arise. Through developments made in the last two decades, we are beginning to generate quantum phenomena at classical scales through creation of new forms of matter, like Bose-Einstein condensates which consist of a collection of atoms that behave as if described by a single wavefunction.

Researchers already are using quantum information science to generate "unbreakable" codes for ultra-secure encryption. They may someday build quantum computers that can solve problems in seconds that today's best supercomputers could not solve in years. And, the potential of exploiting the quantum phenomena for developing new detectors, tools, and other devices is just starting to be tapped.

With several world-renowned scientists, including three Nobel laureates, NIST is well-positioned to develop the tools for measuring and controlling these quantum phenomena and harnessing their properties to benefit the nation. Our work is widely recognized as one of the most advanced quantum research programs in the world.

The last example I want to discuss is how measurements and standards can improve the utility of medical imagery. Over the last few decades, the quality of medical imagery has become exquisite. But the data is still a contrast image and the interpretation is based upon the relative signal as opposed to comparison against an absolute standard.

Imagine how a diagnosis might improve and costs decrease if a medical professional could look at an MRI and not just note that an artery looks constricted—but could determine the volume of blood flow through that artery. Or, that the shadow cast on an image has a certain density—and thus in real time distinguish whether it is a tumor. Through the establishment of appropriate measurements and standards, we hope to accomplish this goal.

These examples illustrate that innovation—enabled by our nation's investment in basic science—will continue to drive our economic security and enhance our quality of life.

NIST's measurement and standards work is one of the foundations on which innovations are built. We provide an "infrastructure"—the roads, bridges and communications networks of the scientific and technological world. We enable the members of that world to work with each other. When scientists, engineers, and manufacturers compare and trade data, test results, or manufactured goods—they do so with confidence in the exchange because of NIST's presence in the background.

Earlier, I mentioned Jan Hall, our most recent Nobel Prize winner. He likes to describe himself as a "toolmaker." In a sense that goes for all of us at NIST—we're in the business of making tools: Tools for innovation, tools for competitiveness. Our aim is to provide the Nation with the best tools in the world for building our nation's economic future.

Thank you.

Created October 7, 2009, Updated June 2, 2021