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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Physics Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 Summary The overall mission of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve the quality of life. The institutional vision is to be the world’s leader in creating critical measurement solutions and promoting equitable standards with core competencies in the areas of measurement sciences, rigorous traceability, and standards. The mission of the NIST Physics Laboratory is to support U.S. industry, government, and the scientific community by providing measurement services and research for electronic, optical, and radiation technology. In this respect, the laboratory provides the foundation for the metrology of optical and ionizing radiations, time and frequency, and fundamental quantum processes, historically major areas of standards and technology. The organizational structure of the Physics Laboratory for accomplishing its mission and goals includes six vertically integrated divisions: Atomic Physics Division Electron and Optical Physics Division Ionizing Radiation Division Optical Technology Division Quantum Physics Division Time and Frequency Division The laboratory also includes an Office of Electronic Commerce in Scientific and Engineering Data to facilitate the electronic dissemination of technical information through the Internet. In line with the vertical integration of the laboratory, each division is further divided into groups and projects. The Panel on Physics visited the six divisions of the laboratory and reviewed a selected sample of their programs and projects. As described in the next chapter, “The Charge to the Panel and the Assessment Process,” the panel’s assessment included the following four criteria: (1) the technical merit of the current laboratory programs relative to the current state of the art worldwide; (2) the adequacy of the laboratory facilities, equipment, and human resources, as they affect the quality of the laboratory technical programs; (3) the degree to which the laboratory programs in measurement science and standards achieve stated objectives and desired impact; and (4) the extent of the progress of all of the fiscal year (FY) 2007 programs funded under the America COMPETES Act of 2007 (which supports the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative [ACI])1 relevant to the laboratory. 1 See Domestic Policy Council, Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2006, American Competitiveness Initiative, Washington, D.C. “America COMPETES Act” is the short title for the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007 (Public Law 110-69).
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Physics Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 TECHNICAL MERIT RELATIVE TO STATE OF THE ART The overall quality and productivity of the Physics Laboratory are comparable to or better than those of other peer institutions, an accomplishment that is being achieved with an infrastructure that is smaller in both size and funding than the size and funding of most national and agency laboratories in the United States. The laboratory has responsibilities for the maintenance and improvement of the U.S. national standards for the Système International (SI) base and derived units, including those for time (the second), light (the candela), light output (the lumen), power (optical watt), thermometry (the kelvin), radiation (the gray), and radioactivity (the becquerel), as well as many other quantities, units, and data compilations. Following are some of the responsibilities of the laboratory’s six divisions: The Atomic Physics Division compiles fundamental constants and spectroscopic data for atoms from the far infrared to the x-ray spectral region. It maintains the Atomic Data Center, the only center of its kind, and it sets the standard worldwide for these data. The Electron and Optical Physics Division has the primary responsibility for the national primary radiometric standards for extreme ultraviolet (EUV) radiation. The Ionizing Radiation Division is primarily responsible for radiation dose (gray) and radioactivity (becquerel) as well as calibrations and standards in industry and medicine. The Optical Technology Division maintains primary standards for the candela and associated photometric, colorimetric, pyrometric, and spectral radiometric quantities. The Quantum Physics Division conducts research in support of the length scale for mechanical measurements along with establishing a direct connection between optical and radio frequencies. The Time and Frequency Division maintains time and frequency standards with the accuracy, continuity, and stability essential for supporting U.S. commerce and scientific research; provides an official source of time for U.S. civilian applications; and supports the coordination of international time and frequency standards, including realization of the SI second. The success of the laboratory, its relevance, and the quality of the work are exemplified by the Nobel Prizes in physics awarded to three of its staff during the past decade, an accomplishment not duplicated by government laboratories and academic research institutions that are much larger and funded at a higher level. Such honors should be taken as an affirmation of the importance and success of the overall standards, services, and research being performed within this laboratory and provided nationwide and worldwide as well as an acknowledgment of the unique and relevant accomplishments of the Nobel laureates themselves. It is worth noting that the research on which the three awards were based is directly related to improvements in measurements and standards.
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Physics Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 ADEQUACY OF INFRASTRUCTURE Staffing The quality and productivity of the research staff in all of the laboratory’s divisions are impressive, and the laboratory appears to be moving well toward the NIST 3-year goal for attracting and retaining excellent staff. The vast majority of the projects are well conceived and relevant to the mission of the divisions and to the needs of those who use the calibrations, standards, and research results. A major strength of the laboratory is the receptiveness of the researchers and administrative staff to input from the user community and a willingness to address new and evolving technological and metrological issues. Some groups in the divisions are staffed heavily with retired and/or emeritus employees, contractors, and visitors. Visiting researchers are major contributors to the quality and productivity of the laboratory, bringing in new ideas, establishing close working relationships that continue after the individuals have returned to their own institutions, and filling gaps in expertise in particular projects. A policy involving the use of nonpermanent personnel can, at the same time, be disruptive, because such a policy can jeopardize continuity and flexibility if not effectively implemented. Capabilities appear to be threatened in some areas by the staffing trends of the past few years. A relatively low permanent staff population appears to be partially related to the NIST overhead structure, which assesses the salaries of permanent staff but not the costs of contractor personnel. A related factor appears to be the extent to which support depends on external funding sources, a factor that has led to a situation in which the hiring or maintaining of temporary appointments is preferred over permanent appointments because of lower costs. A NIST committee is addressing the NIST overhead structure and how it is allocated. Security Procedures for New Personnel There has been notable improvement in the ability of the NIST facility at Boulder, Colorado, to engage guest scientists. A highly effective program enables both foreign and domestic scientists to work at NIST Boulder on contract through a new scientific services company. Programs through several universities in Colorado enable collaborative work by foreign and domestic scientists with the Physics Laboratory. The security-related background checks of new employees and visitors to the laboratory should be expedited as much as possible. The scientists at NIST work on complex experiments that often involve measurements being made after regular business hours when vibrations and temperature fluctuations in the building are minimized. Therefore, it is a serious impediment to both progress and a collaborative spirit that new employees, and particularly foreign visitors and employees, often face 5 to 14 months for background checks by an agency outside of NIST before being allowed to run their experiments after hours. The resolution of this issue would be in line with the ACI goal of increasing the ability of the United States to compete for and retain the most highly skilled workers from around the world.
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Physics Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 New Facilities and Equipment An impressive building program has continued since the 2005 assessment by the previous National Research Council (NRC) Panel on Physics.2 As noted in that assessment, the addition of these new facilities should alleviate many problems arising because of insufficient space. Although new buildings generally require less maintenance, they do not eliminate the need entirely, so maintenance issues must still be resolved both in the short and long terms, particularly in the case of existing facilities. A main concern is the condition of the physical plant that houses the Radiation Interactions and Dosimetry Group and the Radioactivity Group in the Ionizing Radiation Division, as well as aging equipment that must be replaced. A serious problem arises from the fact newer equipment must be housed in heavily (radiation) shielded bunkers, but the division is housed in an older building whose shielded facilities do not meet these requirements. This is a major issue that may require the construction of a new building. Funding for a major renovation, or preferably a new building, should be established for the Ionizing Radiation Division. Shielded radiation cells should be constructed to house modern radiation equipment and the high-dose-rate calibration equipment needed for industrial-scale dosimetry and medical imaging and calibrations. A new laboratory building for the Time and Frequency Division at Boulder has been funded, and construction bids have been solicited. Initiatives to construct this new laboratory should be completed as planned. There remains, however, the problem of the inability to repair and maintain the present facility in a timely manner. It is critical for the Quantum Physics Division that funding for the new JILA building be provided and that the plans for design and construction move forward in a timely fashion, both to relieve the space crunch at JILA and to maintain the high morale and productivity that are key in making JILA an attractive place to work for highly talented staff members who are actively recruited by other institutions. In the Optical Technology Division, several laboratories are in new locations in the Advanced Measurements Laboratory (AML), and in general the overall increase in floor space offers much more flexibility and a much improved environment for the researchers to work with their equipment. Unfortunately the occupants of the AML, many of whom are in the new Biophysics Group, will have to move in order to create space for a new NIST center. Laboratory moves are always disruptive. Although the affected staff are facing this change with a positive attitude, it will slow the progress of their research for a time. It is important to have a plan in place that will adequately prepare their destination laboratories prior to the move. The Optical Technology Division is also investigating the possibility of developing an x-ray facility using a compact source based on inverse Compton scattering. There needs to be a detailed cost-benefit analysis of the development and operation of this facility compared with the development of beam lines at an existing synchrotron radiation facility. If the proposal is thought to be viable, a more focused review by a diverse panel of experts should be undertaken. The laboratory of the Laser Cooling and Trapping Group in the Atomic Physics 2 National Research Council, 2005, An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Measurement and Standards Laboratories, Fiscal Years 2004-2005, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Physics Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 Division is maintained and used at a high level with the addition of significant outside funding—a recognition of the importance of the research of this group to outside funding agencies. The Joint Quantum Institute has plans for a new building that will provide new laboratory space for the Laser Cooling and Trapping Group; these plans should be brought to completion expeditiously. Maintenance and Upgrading of Existing Facilities and Scientific Equipment Routine maintenance, repairs, and upgrades of existing facilities and equipment vary considerably among the different laboratory divisions and sites. The panel requested and received a meeting with the Chief Facilities Management Officer to discuss routine maintenance. The available annual funding is substantially less than the estimated costs. The capacity and capability of the instrument shops of the NIST facility at Boulder have continued to decline over many years and are now at the point that NIST Boulder researchers, particularly in the Time and Frequency Division, must regularly use external machining services, including commercial services, and must sometimes use JILA instrument shops. The absence of stronger in-house fabrication services impedes NIST Boulder research and metrology. JILA, in contrast, has top-notch mechanical and electronic shops, and this infrastructure is vital to the productivity and success of the Quantum Physics Division. The inadequacy of the NIST instrument shops constitutes an unsatisfactory situation that should be addressed and corrected. The strong emphasis on nanotechnology in many of the projects at JILA has led to the need for a new, high-resolution scanning electron microscope (SEM) with a state-of-the-art field emission source for imaging of the nanostructures and for nanolithography; the present SEM at the laboratory is not state of the art. Infrastructure and facilities for the Time and Frequency Division have shown improvement since 2005. A central heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) facility is being installed to provide improved environmental controls within the existing buildings. A power-conditioning unit is being installed to improve the reliability and quality of the alternating current power to the laboratories on the site. The room in which the new time standard (F2) is being assembled is a significant improvement over the space that housed the current time standard (F1) in 2005. However, these facilities need further improvement, and there remains the problem of the inability to repair and maintain the facility in a timely manner and to an acceptable standard. This problem affects employee safety, efficiency, and morale and should be immediately resolved satisfactorily. The initiative to construct a new laboratory, mentioned above, is laudable; this construction should be completed in a timely fashion as planned, and the present facility must be maintained in an acceptable fashion in the interim. The Quantum Physics Division is housed in the JILA building on the campus of the University of Colorado. Laboratory and office space continues to be insufficient to adequately house current programs. Immediate steps should be taken to ensure that space limitations do not create potentially unsafe working conditions, are not detrimental to productivity, and do not affect the ability to attract, hire, and retain top-class scientists in the future. Funding to build additional space should be provided in a timely fashion.
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Physics Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 Computer Security The security rules for computers mandated through the Office of Management and Budget should be examined to address the specific needs of the laboratory. The Time and Frequency Division’s staff and management have noted, for example, that an increasingly unhealthy fraction of the time and energy of scientists is consumed with various administrative burdens related to information technology (IT) security, procurement, physical security, repeated inventories, required training on administrative issues, and other distractions. NIST should examine ways to comply with the governing laws, regulations, and mandates while minimizing the distraction of the scientists from their mission and fundamental enterprise and maintaining productivity and morale. In fact, NIST would appear to be the appropriate national institution to be examining and developing technologies that maximize security while minimizing interference to the user. The NRC’s 2007 report by the Panel on Information Technology also notes, “There are problems with the interaction between mandated or desirable research activities and the standard computer-security policies that are widely respected at NIST and similar organizations.”3 Research at the NIST Information Technology Laboratory that would reduce these problems would serve not only the best interests of NIST but also the nation. ACHIEVEMENT OF OBJECTIVES AND IMPACT The American Competitiveness Initiative identifies the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the Department of Commerce, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science as three key federal agencies that support basic research programs in the physical sciences and engineering. NIST’s Physics Laboratory is the only laboratory of its kind among these three agencies and, as such, represents a unique and essential national asset within an institute that is both unique and essential. According to the Strategic Plan: Fiscal Years 2007-2012 of the Department of Commerce, “NIST research laboratories focus on providing the measurements, standards, verified data, and test methods necessary to support the development of new technologies and to promote the competitive standing of the United States in the global economy.”4 The strategic plan document further notes that NIST’s scientific and technical staff work closely with private industry, academic researchers, and other government agencies. In order for NIST to achieve these objectives, the NIST Physics Laboratory has provided unduplicated services and technology to business, industry, medicine, academia, and other government agencies in the areas of commerce, transportation, communication, defense, science, and research. In parallel with these responsibilities, it has carried out a research program, in many instances the only such research in the United States or the world, designed to continually improve and expand 3 National Research Council, 2007, An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Information Technology Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2007, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, p. 1. 4 Department of Commerce, 2007, Strategic Plan: Fiscal Years 2007-2012, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, p. 35.
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Physics Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 its capabilities in standards and metrology so as to maintain the leadership position of the laboratory, NIST, and the nation. Detailed observations and recommendations with regard to how well the Physics Laboratory and its divisions have achieved their responsibilities are discussed in the chapters that follow. The overall quality and productivity have continued to rise during the past several decades, including areas of standards originally dominated by other countries, and are now comparable to or better than that of other peer institutions, an accomplishment achieved with an infrastructure that is smaller in both size and funding than the size and funding of most national and agency laboratories. The external impact of the Physics Laboratory is well demonstrated by the fact that three of its staff have received Nobel Prizes in physics in the past decade. Within NIST itself, the Physics Laboratory has 9 of the total of 30 NIST Fellows. These achievements have been accomplished during a time when the lead of the United States in other areas has been diminishing or has vanished as a result of worldwide changes; the Physics Laboratory is dealing with these same changes. To maintain its international position, the Physics Laboratory has developed a strong network of collaborations with national and international groups that provide the laboratory with evaluations of national needs and recommendations of future directions as well as evaluations of the Physics Laboratory’s performance. Following are examples of such collaboration: The NIST Measurement Services Advisory Group (MSAG) was recently created with a goal of bolstering measurement services within NIST. The MSAG selected the Atomic Physics Division’s Atomic Spectroscopy Group to receive funds to enhance the Atomic Data Center, including an enhancement of the center’s ability to collect and disseminate atomic data. The Council for Optical Radiation Measurements (CORM) is a body originally instituted by NIST to provide guidance and prioritization on technical needs in industry and research. It periodically evaluates national needs in optical metrology and provides feedback on the services and standards supplied by the Optical Technology Division. The Council on Ionizing Radiation Measurements and Standards (CIRMS) advises the Ionizing Radiation Division on potential projects. An external advisory committee should be appointed to help the Radioactivity Group select and prioritize both new research projects and the specific areas of service collaboration. The Electron and Optical Physics Division should continue to pursue more collaborations and connections to the growing industrial base focused on EUV lithography. It should initiate a NIST EUV effort to couple existing, relevant expertise across the division. The level of coordination or overlap of the Biophysics Group in the Optical Technology Division with other divisions should be clarified. Although this Biophysics Group fits into the Optical Technology Division, several other divisions include the activities of this group in their portfolios. The Physics Laboratory has the potential to play an increasingly important role in collaborating with other, external organizations to
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Physics Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 exploit the new technologies and methods in many facets of the biosciences. However, it will be necessary for the Physics Laboratory to elucidate a comprehensive plan for organizing and staffing its expanded role in this area if it is to optimize its effectiveness. The terahertz research in the Optical Technology Division has outstanding measurement capabilities in terahertz research, but because these are developing technologies and because of reorganization within the laboratory, it is not obvious which applications are to be investigated and who the future customers are to be. The terahertz research technical leads and the division management should delineate applications areas and their potential applications for the laboratory’s unusual capabilities in the area of terahertz research. The Physics Laboratory should develop a strategic plan in quantum information because it has the potential to become a major innovator of such technology. Conversely, failure within the United States to develop a leadership position in this area could threaten U.S. competitiveness economically and scientifically and could undermine national security.