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Working on the Nation's S&T Infrastructure: Strengthening the Capacity for Discovery and Innovation

(As prepared)

I appreciate the opportunity to meet with this prestigious and very eclectic group. The council is, literally, an organizational "who's who" for science and technology. Its membership spans the "field of science and engineering codes" that the National Science Foundation uses to classify federal science and technology investments.

To state the obvious, the term "interdisciplinary" doesn't even begin to convey the rich assortment of fields represented here. I suspect that, whenever this organization's diverse membership gathers, there is the potential for the spontaneous generation of new ideas-and, maybe, even new R&D budget categories.

The Office of Management and Budget probably cringes every time the council convenes.

Today, I would like to talk about a technical domain that, depending on how you look at it, is overlooked in schemes for classifying research endeavors. Or it is assumed to be intrinsic to nearly every category. Either way, this domain-which I am calling "infrastructural science and technology"-is largely invisible, just like a building's foundation is out of sight, and out of mind for most of its occupants. Though often unnoticed, the foundation is, obviously, vitally important.

The same is true for infrastructural S&T, which is largely what we do at the National Institute of Standards and Technology-or NIST. At NIST, we attend to the health of key technical elements of the nation's platform for innovation. Our work and our services are part of the foundation for discovery and invention and for reducing these advances to practice-at which point they become engines of economic growth or the means to accomplishing health, safety, or environmental goals.

The outputs of our programs-and, in particular, their applications-are cross-cutting. Measurements, tests, generic technologies, and other results of our work serve a broad assortment of customers, including members of many of the organizations that make up this council.

To illustrate, I'll give some quick examples of NIST research and services. I've chosen a few that underpin work relevant to a small, yet diverse sampling of fields represented on the council.

Some of NIST's connections to CSSP members are obvious, or at least I hope they are. For instance:

  • The source of, perhaps, the world's most accurate sound-related measurements, NIST actively contributes to the development of technical standards promulgated by the Acoustical Society of America. By the way, beneficiaries of our work on measuring sound and vibration with great accuracy range from the Defense Department to users of hearing aids.
  • We consult closely with the American Association of Clinical Chemists as we continue to expand to our inventory of reference materials used to ensure the accuracy of diagnostic measurements.
  • Similarly, we collaborated with American Association of Physicists in Medicine to establish a network of regional laboratories that now calibrate instruments used in radiation therapy clinics. This is but one of many examples of calibrations and other measurement services developed cooperatively with members of the nuclear and radiation sciences communities.
  • And many of the tests and tools used by members of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences-from DNA analysis to automated fingerprint matching-embody contributions from scientists working for NIST's Office of Law Enforcement Standards.

NIST has partnered with the American Chemical Society for more than a century. At the request of ACS, one of our first jobs was to help standardize important reagents.

Today, NIST supplies nearly 800 different kinds of chemical Standard Reference Materials. These ensure the accuracy and comparability of measurements made in laboratories and plants in the United States and around the world. And they help to promote trust and efficiency in the global marketplace.

Last year, during our centennial anniversary, the ACS designated NIST as a "national historic chemical landmark." The society honored NIST for its "broad-based and comprehensive contributions to chemical science and technology."

As this much-appreciated recognition suggests, NIST-developed tools and services can deliver multiple benefits, serving customers at companies, universities, and government agencies at every level.

Consider the NIST Mass Spectral Library. It's the world's most widely used collection of mass spectral "fingerprints," containing spectra for almost 150,000 compounds. Installed on about 3,000 commercial instruments each year, this reference collection supports a wide range of activities-from environmental analysis to drug testing-in a wide range of industries, such as petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, and food processing.

In all, NIST develops, maintains, and regularly enhances more than 80 technical and scientific databases, many of them freely available, on line.
Topics range from atomic and molecular physics to protein and crystal structures and from biometrics to the properties of ceramics, polymers, and other materials. Most of these databases contain preferred values based on data that have been evaluated for reliability and accuracy. They help to eliminate a lot of guesswork and uncertainty in the laboratory, making the process of discovery more efficient.

In addition, we provide a variety mathematical databases and software tools. The most widely known NIST reference may be the Handbook of Mathematical Functions, a classic work used by scientists and engineers worldwide. In fact, it's such a classic that Sir Michael Berry, a British physicist of world renown, once told New Scientist magazine that if he were stranded on a desert island, the handbook would be his reading choice.

NIST first published the handbook in 1964. Now we're doing a massive upgrade to make it even more useful. With leading mathematicians from England, France, the Netherlands and Austria, we are combing through the relevant published literature. The results will be compiled into a brand new compendium of mathematical functions.

Not only that, this new work, which is called Digital Library of Mathematical Functions, will be published on the World Wide Web. Advanced search and display capabilities along with a variety of other features will make the reference even more useful and more accessible.

Let's see, I've given examples of NIST's links to chemistry, physics, biology, materials science, the forensic sciences, nuclear and radiation sciences, mathematics, food technology, crystallography, and mass spectrometry.
I'm on a roll. Only about 40 more to go, and I will have touched on the technical interests of the council's entire organizational roster!

Relax. I'm only kidding. I'll cease with the examples-in just a moment. I want to touch on the agricultural sciences, which permit me to illustrate the enabling role of the NIST Advanced Technology Program and to further demonstrate the diversity and utility of NIST's linkages to the S&T enterprise.

All of the work that I have mentioned up to this point is centered in the NIST laboratories, the largest and oldest part of the organization. Our Advanced Technology Program encourages U.S. industry to push the technology envelope and to persevere through the so-called "valley of death" that separates raw, but promising innovations from marketplace applications.

Cost-shared funding from this competitive grants program helped to further work at PPL Therapeutics Inc. in Blacksburg, Virginia. In August, the organization announced that it successfully cloned four piglets that have been genetically modified to "knock out" -or silence-both copies of a key gene. This gene is tied to the acute rejection of pig organs by the human immune system.

The PPL accomplishment is a critical step toward a technology that could revolutionize transplant therapies for a wide variety of diseases, including cell-level therapies for diabetes, Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's Disease.

In the crop science area, ATP funding is credited with enabling advances that ultimately resulted in methods for making a commercial polymer entirely from a renewable resource: sugars derived from corn plants. A joint venture between Cargill and Dow Chemical brought these methods to the proof-of-concept stage.

When the ATP funding ended, the partnership persisted and refined the immature processing technology. Last year, Cargill Dow LLC opened a $300 million processing facility in Blair, Nebraska. There, they are producing PLA films and fibers for use in clothing, carpeting, and packaging. PLA is the first polymer entirely derived from a renewable resource to compete head-to-head in the market with polymers made from oil.

By way of examples relevant to a portion of the council's members, I have tried to show how NIST helps the nation's collective science and technology enterprise to-in a sense-"be all that it can be."

Now, I suppose, I should zoom out and give you a big picture view of NIST today. Then I'll proceed to NIST's agenda for the future.

In fact, our reason for being is, in a phrase, "enabling a better future." Our mission is clear and simple: to develop and promote measurements, standards, and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life.

NIST carries out its mission through four cooperative programs, listed here. I've mentioned two already: the NIST Laboratories and the Advanced Technology Program. I neglected to mention the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Baldrige National Quality Program.

Let me start with the Manufacturing Extension Partnership-MEP, for short. It's is a nationwide network of local centers offering technical and business assistance to smaller manufacturers. Some examples of MEP center services are listed here.

Locally run and jointly funded, MEP centers are distributed throughout the nation, and they provide a focal point for delivery of services to local manufacturers. On behalf of their customers, the centers tap the expertise and resource of many organizations. For example, more than 400 universities and two- and four-year colleges are tied into the MEP network.

In a nutshell, the Baldrige National Quality Program is a powerful catalyst for organizations to adopt a thoroughly evaluated set of values, performance criteria, and assessment methods that help them improve productivity and effectiveness. The program has had a tremendous impact since it was launched in the 1980s.

Thousands of businesses and other organizations have used the Baldrige Award criteria to guide their own pursuit of quality improvement and performance excellence.

The results have been so significant that the Baldrige program has been called the best example of effective cooperation between the federal government and the private sector. Last year, a study by two university economists estimated the total benefits of the program to the U.S. economy to be almost $25 billion. That's better than $1 billion a year since the program began in 1987.

Within the last few years, the program was expanded to include education and health care. Last year, there were three winners in the education category-the first ever. This year, we had the first health care winner. These organizations provide the initial set of role models that, as experience shows, will be so essential to motivating and sustaining quality improvement efforts in these critical sectors.

To date, Baldrige Award recipients have given more than 30,000 presentations, reaching thousands of organizations aiming to improve their performance.

The Advanced Technology Program encourages U.S. industry to invest in the future-to pursue nascent technologies that have the potential to pay big dividends, realized in terms of economic growth, new markets, or enhanced industrial capabilities. Most of these projects are led by small businesses, often in collaboration with other organizations.

Technical hurdles and other risks are high. Not every ATP project achieves its long-term goals. We recognize that there will be failures. When risks are high and prospective payoffs are years away, failures are to be expected. Still, the program has had its share of successes. For one, the economically important field of "DNA chips" has blossomed from technology resulting from ATP projects.

The ATP is the most closely scrutinized and, yet, most widely emulated R&D program in the federal government. It continues to be the focus of policy debates.

Finally, we come to the NIST laboratories, the oldest and largest part of the organization. In all, they total seven, not including an outreach arm for delivering measurement and standards-related services. Our laboratories are charged with the increasingly demanding job of meeting the high priority measurement and data needs of existing industries. They also must respond to-and even anticipate-key technical challenges that could impede budding technologies from reaching full flower. Nanotechnology and pervasive computing are cases in point.

NIST's responses to these needs and challenges span the research spectrum, from investigations at the most basic-some might even say, profound-levels to activities focused on the development of instruments or services that individual companies will not develop on their own.

An example of the latter is an X-ray microcalorimeter that we developed in response to requests from the semiconductor industry. The device enables a tremendous advance in the sensitivity of materials analyses. We had the expertise necessary to develop this breakthrough measurement technology. Through a licensing agreement we have since handed the technology off to industry.

As you can see from the pie chart, about one-fifth of our laboratory effort falls into the category of basic research. Activities in this category of fundamental research are proof that measurement science is never pedestrian and can even be enthralling.

Consider the work of two NIST physicists that have increased-or ultimately will increase-the accuracy of time-keeping technology. Within the last six years, they have won Nobel prizes-one for work that contributed to capabilities for cooling atoms to within fractions of a degree of absolute zero and the other for helping to prove the existence of the molecular molasses known as the Bose-Einstein Condensate.

Research avenues opened by these accomplishments may well lead beyond next-generation atomic clocks. They point to many promising technological opportunities, from atomic lasers to quantum information technology.

Much of our work, however, resides in the crucial space between basic research and development. NIST's applied research efforts help companies and other organizations to negotiate the often-perilous transition from laboratory achievement to marketplace application. Interestingly, during the 1990s, applied research was the slowest growing segment of the nation's research portfolio.

These are extremely challenging times for NIST. We are in an era of flat or even declining budgets. Yet, we also are in an era of incredible technological opportunity. Demand for NIST's particular brands technical expertise will grow.

Why? You might ask. For an answer, I'll turn to Lord Kelvin (slide). His words,1 if it is possible, may ring even "truer" today. This is so because, now, as so many fields converge on the once inscrutable domain of molecules and atoms, new knowledge often corresponds directly to technological opportunity.

Advanced measurement capabilities deepen our understanding. They help you progress from an empirical understanding of a phenomenon to a fundamental understanding. In so doing, they move technological opportunity from the realm of the abstract to that of the tangible, the attainable.

In his seminal American Physical Society lecture that, more than 40 years ago, presaged today's burgeoning field of nanotechnology, Ricard Feynman advised that "there's plenty of room at the bottom." NIST researchers want to be able to determine exactly how much room.

At the same time, complexity is increasing. In fields ranging from biotechnology to materials to advanced computing, the parameter space is growing vastly larger. Better or entirely new measurements will be needed so that these systems-level challenges can be tackled, well, systematically.

Now, factor in the horrific reality of 9/11. Along with other science and technology agencies, NIST has a new and vitally important priority, accelerating efforts to secure the nation from terrorist threats.

The NIST laboratories are involved in about 120 products that are addressing homeland security needs. These activities extend from:

  • a major investigation of the structural failure and subsequent progressive collapse of the World Trade Center buildings so that the design, construction, and even the use of buildings can be improved to significantly enhance safety;
  • to contributing to industry-led efforts to reduce vulnerabilities in the nation's electric power system
  • to developing standards for the biometric identification systems to be employed at our nation's borders and other points of entry.

Over the past year, NIST has been given a number of additional responsibilities that it must factor into decisions on how to allocate staff and resources. The majority stem from legislation designed to help the nation mobilize to counter the threat of future terrorist attacks. The most recent legislation, the Cybersecurity Research and Development Act, gives us the job of managing a grants program to encourage universities and companies to pursue innovative information security technologies.

Unfortunately, many of our other new assignments do not come with additional funding. This means we will have to wrestle with difficult choices when deciding how to deploy staff and resources. We will have to listen even more closely to our industrial customers to determine to their top technical needs. Then, we must figure out where NIST can make not just high value-added contributions, but the highest-possible value-added contributions.

At the same time, increasing emphasis on performance-based management in federal agencies provides additional incentive for achieving even tighter alignment with customer needs.

In our strategic planning, we have singled out four technology areas that warrant increased organizational focus and investment. I've mentioned one already, homeland security, and alluded to another, nanotechnology. The other two are health care and knowledge and information management.

Within each of these strategic focus areas we have identified key categories of activity-thrust areas where, in effect, we think can deliver the biggest bang with our resources.

In health care, for example, an estimated $50 billion is lost each year due to inaccurate measurements that necessitate repeat tests. I also should note that the global market for diagnostic assays and devices is about $20 billion. Sales by U.S. companies account for about 60 percent of the lucrative European market. This market share could shrink if U.S. manufacturers do not respond skillfully to pending European requirements for certifying measurement traceability, a means of assuring accuracy.

So in the health care domain, we will work on developing measurement methods and other tools that will speed the emergence and application of new clinical testing technologies. I am referring to lab-on-a-chip technologies, protein analyses, and other types of microarrays that promise superior performance. However, these technologies-and those yet to come-will require new ways of assuring measurement accuracy and reliability and, most important of all, the validity of test results.

We also will contribute to efforts to improve the information infrastructure within the health care sector. This would go a long way toward correcting administrative and operational inefficiencies that lead to errors, waste, and even avoidable deaths.

We anticipate growing demand for NIST's specialized capabilities and services across the agency's entire portfolio of programs. Since 9/11, our full plate of tasks has been garnished with an additional serving of new assignments.

How effectively we respond will depend, in large part, whether we are able to assemble the necessary expertise-from inside and outside of NIST. Collaboration is already a hallmark of the way we do business. For example, each year we host more than 600 university scientists and engineers, who work in our laboratories. We work with about 100 federal agencies, and our industrial collaborators and customers number in the thousands.

Still, today's extraordinary circumstances-the curious product of crisis, progress, cost, and complexity-require strategic partnering to become integral, even organic, to my organization and to yours. In our new millennium, solo travelers-individual researchers, organizations, and even nations-who venture out on their own may be among the last to reach their intended destination on a science and technology frontier rich with opportunities.

Thank you. I'd be happy to answer any questions that you may have.

Created October 7, 2009, Updated October 22, 2016