Synopsis of the 2004-2005 Assessment

This report, An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Measurement and Standards Laboratories: Fiscal Years 2004-2005, is the latest in a series of independent peer reviews of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) laboratories conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) since 1959. Although commissioned by NIST as part of its process for continuous improvement, this assessment was conducted and written by a standing board of the NRC that is independent of NIST. This report is based on the observations and professional judgment of 153 independent, pro bono experts chosen by the NRC for their relevant technical expertise. Most of these scientists and engineers visited NIST three times during the 2 years of this assessment period for a total of 6 days, to gather information and engage in extensive, in-depth discussions with NIST management and staff. Through this intensive process, the Board sampled enough programs to assess the technical quality of the seven NIST Measurement and Standards Laboratories (MSLs).

Chapter 1 of this report contains an institution-wide assessment of the NIST MSLs. Chapters 2 through 8, each of which addresses one of the seven MSLs, contain a wide range of observations and recommendations developed from the extensive fact-finding. In this synopsis, the Board presents the aspects of its assessment that should be of interest to the community of NIST stakeholders.

The Board is very impressed with the technical quality of NIST’s intramural work. NIST carries out in a superb fashion an absolutely vital role in supporting as well as facilitating the further development of the technological base of the U.S. economy. Its personnel and scientific programs are, by scientific measures, among the best in the world, and its explicit and continuing attention to the needs of its customers keeps it alert to the changing technological environment to which it must be responsive.

NIST’s programs continue to evolve in an impressive fashion, driven both by the expansion in its authority and responsibility that took place in 1987 and 1988,1 to which it has responded admirably, and

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The change occurred with the transformation of the National Bureau of Standards into the National Institute of Standards and Technology.



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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Measurement and Standards Laboratories: Fiscal Years 2004 – 2005 Synopsis of the 2004-2005 Assessment This report, An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Measurement and Standards Laboratories: Fiscal Years 2004-2005, is the latest in a series of independent peer reviews of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) laboratories conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) since 1959. Although commissioned by NIST as part of its process for continuous improvement, this assessment was conducted and written by a standing board of the NRC that is independent of NIST. This report is based on the observations and professional judgment of 153 independent, pro bono experts chosen by the NRC for their relevant technical expertise. Most of these scientists and engineers visited NIST three times during the 2 years of this assessment period for a total of 6 days, to gather information and engage in extensive, in-depth discussions with NIST management and staff. Through this intensive process, the Board sampled enough programs to assess the technical quality of the seven NIST Measurement and Standards Laboratories (MSLs). Chapter 1 of this report contains an institution-wide assessment of the NIST MSLs. Chapters 2 through 8, each of which addresses one of the seven MSLs, contain a wide range of observations and recommendations developed from the extensive fact-finding. In this synopsis, the Board presents the aspects of its assessment that should be of interest to the community of NIST stakeholders. The Board is very impressed with the technical quality of NIST’s intramural work. NIST carries out in a superb fashion an absolutely vital role in supporting as well as facilitating the further development of the technological base of the U.S. economy. Its personnel and scientific programs are, by scientific measures, among the best in the world, and its explicit and continuing attention to the needs of its customers keeps it alert to the changing technological environment to which it must be responsive. NIST’s programs continue to evolve in an impressive fashion, driven both by the expansion in its authority and responsibility that took place in 1987 and 1988,1 to which it has responded admirably, and 1   The change occurred with the transformation of the National Bureau of Standards into the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Measurement and Standards Laboratories: Fiscal Years 2004 – 2005 by the very rapid rate of change being experienced in global scientific and technological driving forces for economic growth and social change. This has required that it become a more entrepreneurial, outward-looking, customer-focused research organization with core competencies and the agility to respond quickly and effectively to emerging national needs. It is clearly meeting that requirement extremely well. At the same time, NIST must continue its traditional scientific efforts in metrology and standards development. Laboratory organization, staffing, and project selection are all affected by the need to maintain a balance between these two types of activity. Many of the comments in this report relate to an assessment of the largely successful effort at NIST to achieve that balance as well as the identification of ways to perpetuate and improve upon it. The rapid rate of change in scientific and technological driving forces affects NIST in several ways. First, it places demands on NIST to develop new metrological tools that can be used effectively at shorter timescales and finer length scales or to make measurements in entirely new kinds of systems. Second, to meet the national need and NIST’s goal that it remain among the world’s best laboratories of its kind, it must be a first mover in applying new science and technology (S&T) to the development of new metrological approaches. And, third, since the most rapid S&T developments occur at the boundaries between disciplines, there is an increasing need for multi- and interdisciplinary approaches that challenge the traditional disciplinary structures in all research institutions, including NIST. A number of comments in this report address ways of dealing with these challenges. The following general observations of the Board pertain to the NIST Measurement and Standards Laboratories as a whole: NIST has undergone a remarkable transformation in little more than a decade and a half from an organization devoted to producing excellent science and standards in an orderly, incremental fashion using a single-principal-investigator mode of operation to an entrepreneurial, outward-looking, customer-focused research organization whose core competencies and newly developed agility have responded quickly and effectively to emerging national needs. NIST serves a vital role in supporting the further development of the technological base of the U.S. economy, and it does so superbly. NIST appears, in most respects, to be moving very well in addressing the focus areas identified in its 2010 Strategic Plan (NIST, 2004), particularly with respect to nanometrology and homeland security. Its work in the areas of the biosciences and health has had a very good start, but in order for this work to make broad and continuing contributions consistent with NIST’s own standards of excellence, the Board recommends that those two focus areas be considered as distinct from each other. The Board also recommends that NIST undertake comprehensive, cross-laboratory planning efforts in both the biosciences and health to identify the subset of issues that it is best positioned to address and to develop coordinated approaches to addressing those issues. It is noted that both of these fields depend strongly on scientists with interdisciplinary training, so NIST’s planning in this field must be tightly linked to staff development. The Board notes, with strong approval, the continued growth of institutional collaborations between NIST and other organizations, which are expanding NIST’s capacities and establishing useful institutional and professional relationships. The Board recommends, however, that criteria be further developed and/or more clearly communicated to staff concerning the circumstances under which patent protection is to be sought for NIST products. It is important both for NIST staff and for collaborators from other institutions to have a consistent perspective on intellectual property issues or to develop procedures that recognize and respect institutional differences so as to smooth the collaborations. NIST is clearly faced with the difficult task of balancing its traditional roles in metrology and

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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Measurement and Standards Laboratories: Fiscal Years 2004 – 2005 standards development with its newer, broader roles in technology development related to national needs. The Board observes that for the most part this is being done quite well. It suggests, however, that clearer criteria need to be developed for the setting of programmatic and project priorities that will continue to achieve that balance in the long run, and that can be used as well to develop long-term staffing plans. The design of NIST’s current Web site does not allow for easy access to the wealth of information that the MSLs are generating. This is a particular problem for occasional customers, who are likely to comprise an increasing fraction of NIST’s constituency. The Board recommends that NIST treat Web site development as a high priority in the next 2 years. The Board was specifically asked by the NIST Director to consider the adequacy of the laboratories’ facilities, equipment, and human resources, insofar as they affect the quality of the technical programs and the effectiveness with which the laboratories meet their customers’ needs. Therefore, the Board notes that while NIST management has worked creatively to maintain the quality of the laboratories through a period of sometimes decreasing or at least uncertain funding, in the long run it cannot continue to do so. That is, NIST will not be able to respond to all that it is being asked to do and also to maintain its quality if action is not taken to reverse its loss of staff. Finally, the Board notes that it has proposed that NIST give consideration to reviewing the NIST Boulder operation as a single, integrated entity in the next biennial assessment, which would be a departure from the past. Although this idea emerged as a possible way to simplify the assessment process, it raises the issue of whether treating Boulder as an integrated entity might have programmatic advantages. The Board has reached no conclusion on this point, but poses it as a question to NIST management. Overall, the Board continues to be impressed with the capabilities and accomplishments of the NIST Measurement and Standards Laboratories, and it looks forward to reviewing NIST’s progress in the future.

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