8
Overall Conclusions

The following conclusions apply to the Physics Laboratory overall and are organized by the three major criteria against which the panel was charged to perform its assessment.

The Technical Merit of the Current Laboratory Programs Relative to Current State-of-the-Art Programs Worldwide

Within the United States, there is no other national laboratory or facility that focuses on the missions of the NIST Physics Laboratory, and there is no other laboratory worldwide working on the physics of standards and technology that has had the successes in physics that this laboratory has achieved during the past two decades. The laboratory has maintained this leadership position despite being among the smallest national laboratories addressing physics standards and technology, both in the number of personnel and in the size of the operating budgets. Despite its small size, it has maintained its exemplary performance by remaining focused on providing constantly improving measurement services relevant to the state-of-the-art industrial, medical, and commercial needs, keeping in close communication with its customers to anticipate their needs, and doing the research needed to improve those services and keep pace with developments in the field.

The Adequacy of the Laboratory Budget, Facilities, Equipment, and Human Resources, As They Affect the Quality of the Laboratory's Technical Programs

The budget for the Physics Laboratory has generally been maintained or increased in most areas in absolute dollars, although decreased budgets and/or decreases have been observed in some areas, with the standards and service areas appearing to be bearing a higher fraction of the burden. These reductions appear to result in part from three factors: increased operational costs, increased commitments for budget line items, and funding from external agencies for specific programs that represent a significant fraction of the increased funding. Funding restrictions are exacerbated by a continual decrease in discretionary funds at every level of NIST and the Physics Laboratory. State funding for collaborators and affiliated institutions also has begun to decrease, with further reduction expected. Despite these issues contributing to lesser support for standards and services, reduced funding for some standards and services appears in some cases to be a reallocation because of the prioritization for research.

The laboratory has new facilities in the planning stage, under construction, or completed since 2008, and it has acquired major equipment in key areas, in many cases partly in response to recommendations from the 2008 NRC assessment panel. There appears to be increased commitment to the refurbishment of the existing facilities and to maintenance, although there remain areas of concern for specific programs and groups.



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8 Overall Conclusions The following conclusions apply to the Physics Laboratory overall and are organized by the three major criteria against which the panel was charged to perform its assessment. The Technical Merit of the Current Laboratory Programs Relative to Current State-of-the-Art Programs Worldwide Within the United States, there is no other national laboratory or facility that focuses on the missions of the NIST Physics Laboratory, and there is no other laboratory worldwide working on the physics of standards and technology that has had the successes in physics that this laboratory has achieved during the past two decades. The laboratory has maintained this leadership position despite being among the smallest national laboratories addressing physics standards and technology, both in the number of personnel and in the size of the operating budgets. Despite its small size, it has maintained its exemplary performance by remaining focused on providing constantly improving measurement services relevant to the state-of-the-art industrial, medical, and commercial needs, keeping in close communication with its customers to anticipate their needs, and doing the research needed to improve those services and keep pace with developments in the field. The Adequacy of the Laboratory Budget, Facilities, Equipment, and Human Resources, As They Affect the Quality of the Laboratory's Technical Programs The budget for the Physics Laboratory has generally been maintained or increased in most areas in absolute dollars, although decreased budgets and/or decreases have been observed in some areas, with the standards and service areas appearing to be bearing a higher fraction of the burden. These reductions appear to result in part from three factors: increased operational costs, increased commitments for budget line items, and funding from external agencies for specific programs that represent a significant fraction of the increased funding. Funding restrictions are exacerbated by a continual decrease in discretionary funds at every level of NIST and the Physics Laboratory. State funding for collaborators and affiliated institutions also has begun to decrease, with further reduction expected. Despite these issues contributing to lesser support for standards and services, reduced funding for some standards and services appears in some cases to be a reallocation because of the prioritization for research. The laboratory has new facilities in the planning stage, under construction, or completed since 2008, and it has acquired major equipment in key areas, in many cases partly in response to recommendations from the 2008 NRC assessment panel. There appears to be increased commitment to the refurbishment of the existing facilities and to maintenance, although there remain areas of concern for specific programs and groups. 61

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There also remain major groups with facilities with shortcomings that interfere with productivity, time lines, and quality. In terms of human resources, the technical scientists and staff continue to represent the major strength of this laboratory, and the laboratory administration has effectively applied a proactive approach that retains many of its outstanding personnel and has attracted new, highly qualified people. Budget and reallocation issues appear to be adversely affecting retention, salaries, the ratio of permanent staff to temporary appointments, and recruitment. More recently, the Office of Security within the Department of Commerce has begun reinterpreting existing policies regarding (1) out-of- hours access and (2) the unescorted access of foreign guest researchers. NIST leadership appears to be working with the Office of Security to ensure that none of these policies will be detrimental to NIST, but previous, less restrictive policies had already been noted by the panel as affecting productivity. Further constraints on the ability of foreign guest researchers to carry out their research are likely to decrease severely the number of these researchers, who are a valuable component in the Physics Laboratory’s overall research program. Salaries of permanent staff are becoming less competitive, and the complex, lengthy employment process with initial working restrictions remains a concern, although there were improvements in this area over the past 2 years. Major laboratory administrators responsible for the successes of the past decades are advancing and/or retiring. There should be an explicit plan not only for selecting exceptional people as replacements or for new projects but also for providing the training and resources needed to maintain the past level of leadership. A generally flat and in some cases decreased budget for the laboratory may have a deleterious effect on its ability to maintain senior scientific and technical staff. Without vigilance and continued adequate support, the past and present reputation and position of the laboratory may not extend into the future. The laboratory and several of its divisions and groups have responded to budgetary pressures and to recommendations of the 2008 NRC assessment panel by developing long-range detailed strategic plans, but sufficient resources must be provided if the laboratory is going to be able to achieve its goals. Although the laboratory’s strategic plan includes provisions for the increased support needed to maintain its new facilities and to upgrade and maintain the existing facilities, the inadequacy of past levels of funds for maintenance suggests that this matter deserves continued attention. The Degree to Which Laboratory Programs in Measurement Science, Standards, and Services Achieve Their Stated Objectives and Desired Impact Recent strategic plans at both the laboratory and division levels have succinctly enumerated objectives and, in turn, provide elucidation of the significance of the individual achievements and their contributions to these objectives. Some groups, however, would benefit from additional long-term planning for balancing core activities and allocating resources. The strategic planning could suggest appropriate paths for organizing personnel among divisions in the Physics Laboratory so that the talented staff can work more closely and efficiently with their collaborators in other divisions. New, improved, and/or more accurate services are being provided; however, some important 62

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service and standards areas have had reductions in funding, reduction in services, or increased workloads, as noted in the individual division chapters, impacting their ability to meet their responsibilities. Recently, as a result of a U.S. Government Accountability Office audit of the NIST Working Capital Fund, attorneys from the Department of Commerce General Law Division questioned the terms of the agreements by which other federal agencies transfer funds to NIST. The panel understands that NIST may be required to implement alternative procedures for accepting funding from other federal agencies. The panel recommends that any new administrative options should not reduce the efficiency or rapidity with which research addressing the needs of other federal agencies is conducted at NIST. The panel concludes that NIST, the Department of Commerce, and the nation have been well served by the Physics Laboratory, with the past two decades being an era of exceptional accomplishment. The laboratory and its scientific, technical, and administrative personnel, as well as the service organizations and personnel supporting them, are to be lauded for their achievements. 63

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