The Board and panels have been pleased with the improved performance resulting from meaningful strategic planning in each of the seven NIST laboratories. However, in its review of the MSL, the Board found that although it consistently had the information to judge the performance of individual laboratories it lacked a measure for the MSL as a whole. As a result, the Board could not determine if the MSL collectively are achieving their full potential impact. The Board believes that to progress to the next level of effectiveness and impact, the MSL require strategic planning and leadership at the level of the MSL as a whole.
A clearly articulated strategic plan at the MSL level would allow NIST to take better advantage of opportunities in biotechnology, optoelectronics, information technology, nanotechnology, and other emerging areas that are highly interdisciplinary in their subject matter and, for greatest effectiveness, require an effort coordinated across NIST's current “stovepipe” organizational structure. Currently, individual researchers are engaging in ad hoc interunit collaborations. A clear MSL-level strategy in these areas would allow each laboratory unit to more effectively align efforts within its competence toward addressing common goals, resulting in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
Facilities and major capital equipment choices could also be improved and integrated in light of an MSL-level strategic plan. Having clear goals for the MSL in particular technology areas will allow facilities and equipment planning to be done with more insight because managers will have a clearer picture of where the MSL should be 5 years out. Facilities and equipment plans could then be clearly integrated with program plans for the MSL as a whole. This should result in better decision making and efficiency, as laboratory units identify more areas for consolidation of their current resources and more areas for joint investment in future facilities and equipment purchases.
Because NIST lacks a clearly articulated MSL-wide plan, the Board and panels were left with the impression that some of the staff reductions in the past year occurred for reasons of expediency (i.e., they occurred where funds were lowest or where staff were already leaving) rather than as a result of strategic considerations. Some outstanding staff were let go, and some competencies were completely lost. A clear MSL-level plan could be used to identify those competencies that are crucial to meeting goals and to help in making strategic, coordinated decisions about which competencies to drop and which to bolster in lean times. Such a plan could provide guidance on areas for new hiring at all times.
Flat budgets, the fast pace of technology change, and the emerging global regime combine to require difficult programmatic decisions. The need to begin programs to address new areas of technology and to accelerate existing programs to meet the window of opportunity for impact may mean that programs in mature technological areas suffer cutbacks. Some industry needs may be served through NIST collaborations or agreements with other national measurement institutes. Other programmatic areas will have to be dropped altogether. New ways of carrying out the NIST mission will have to be considered. A clear MSL-level strategy would provide the mechanism to address such challenges in a rational way and help bring about the desired balance between support of emerging industries and support of established areas. If MSL-level goals are communicated clearly to all levels of staff, such decisions will be easier to implement. Clearly communicated goals would be reflected in better alignment of programs at all levels, leading to greater and more efficient achievements for the NIST laboratories.