GENERAL CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Across the MML divisions, many salient themes were identified regarding the high technical quality of the research, excellence of the scientific staff, strong customer outreach and scientific collaboration, and strong publication and dissemination activities.
While the recommendations below are grouped by divisions to provide actionable suggestions that address each division’s unique needs (a focal point of this review), several crosscutting themes, as well as suggestions and recommendations that are thematically similar, were also identified that pointed to opportunities across, or within, the divisions. Specifically, in some of the divisions, such as the ACMD, BMD, and the MMSD, there is an opportunity to take a closer look at balance between long-term goals/research and short-term projects. Such an analysis could help to establish a balanced portfolio of research, as well as maximize the division’s manpower and resources. In the case of the inclusion of long-term or high-impact research, it could also help to enable the next generation of measurement tools.
Additionally, some of the NIST staff noted that there was a lack of sufficient technical staff within some of the divisions. This lack of technical support has caused some Ph.D. scientists to do routine tasks like equipment maintenance, which is a poor use of their skills and limits productivity. There was also a concern that postdoctoral fellows have to spend a lot of time learning equipment maintenance and troubleshooting. This can potentially lead to an inefficient use of the postdoctoral fellows, and may also impede their progress toward career goals in research. Also, administrative staff is limited in some areas, and this is causing Ph.D. scientists to do administrative tasks required for their research and development (R&D) work.
It was also noted that the facilities in several divisions, such as the BBD, BMD, CSD, and MSED, are aging and outdated. Some of these facilities have leaking roofs and poor ventilation systems, which makes them inadequate for conducting particular experiments, and limits the range of research that can be performed in those laboratories. Routine requests for maintenance can, in some cases, also take a long time to be addressed.
It was also identified that some divisions, such as the BBD, BMD, and MMSD, could benefit from expanding their working relationships with the Office of Data and Informatics (ODI). Substantial benefits related to data management, leveraging developments made by the divisions, and the establishment of best practices may be realized by pursuing efforts such as these that cross division boundaries.
The review also identified opportunities to better utilize the postdoctoral fellows as well as their network. For example, it was identified that CSD has the opportunity to increase the number and quality of National Institute of Standards and Technology and National Research Council (NRC) postdoctoral fellows within their division. Another opportunity that was identified was through leveraging the postdoctoral fellows’ network to improve connectivity across NIST.
Along with suggestions throughout the report, several of the divisional recommendations below reflect these crosscutting or thematically similar topics. Recommendations 1 and 3 both address the theme of finding a balance between long-term goals and research and short-term projects within the ACMD and the BMD—a challenge that was also pointed out in the MMSD chapter. Recommendation 12 focuses on increasing technical and administrative staff in the CSD, which reflects a similar suggestion in body of
the report that MMSD also increase technician support. Recommendations 7 and 10 both address facility maintenance in the BMD and the BBD, a topic that was highlighted in the CSD and MSED chapters. Recommendation 6 (which focuses on the BMD) and Recommendation 20 look at expanding the role of the ODI within divisions that have significant data science efforts, a suggestion that is also echoed in the BBD and MMSD chapters. Recommendations 13 and 15 both focus on improving the use of postdoctoral fellows in the CSD and the MMSD. Given that many of these recommendations and suggestions are thematically similar or crosscutting, it may be helpful for MML leadership (divisional leaders, etc.) to meet together to review these suggestions as a whole and to determine where solutions in other divisions may have already been rendered.
Applied Chemicals and Materials
The programs in the ACMD are well thought out and are starting to fit together as the division refines its focus. Some opportunities within the division, such as those in the Fatigue Fracture Group, are associated with finding research efforts that fit with the mature efforts in the group to allow a full spectrum of projects—from mature to high-risk. Further efforts to have a broader range of projects across the high-risk to mature continuum would better position the division to have the available resources and pathways to address critical problems.
RECOMMENDATION 1: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider expanding its efforts in such a way that the Applied Chemicals and Materials Division’s projects will span the range of development—from high-risk research to mature support programs.
While the ACMD is doing an excellent job with their dissemination efforts, one way they could facilitate more dissemination is through an exchange program between ACMD personnel and other organizations in industry, universities, and national laboratories. These exchanges could be both to and from the ACMD, with the ultimate goal of expanding dissemination and enhancing the staff.
RECOMMENDATION 2: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider an exchange program between the Applied Chemicals and Materials Division personnel and other organizations in industry, universities, and national laboratories.
The BMD excels at addressing the critical measurement needs of the United States in key areas involving biomolecular technologies, including mass spectroscopy, DNA forensics, and biopharmaceuticals. This impact is derived from close interaction with industry and federal agencies. It is important for the division to balance this immediate focus against the upsides of long-term and high-impact research aimed at enabling the next generation of measurement tools, which could lead to potentially revolutionary advances in future measurement. It was evident that some groups within the BMD were pursuing this type of long-range research (e.g., efforts aimed at the development of methods for single-molecule protein sequencing), and these efforts could be expanded across all groups in the BMD.
RECOMMENDATION 3: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider promoting a balanced portfolio of short-term and long-term activities in all groups across the Biomolecular Measurement Division.
The BMD has identified the compelling need for new measurement standards and methods in the area of precision medicine. It is important to develop a clear set of goals concerning this research in precision medicine and a roadmap for achieving these goals. This roadmap would include the prioritization of target selection for relevancy (e.g., protein biomarkers) and maximizing opportunities for collaboration across NIST (e.g., with the BBD).
RECOMMENDATION 4: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider developing a roadmap to realize a program in precision medicine that addresses short-term and long-term needs and maximizes opportunities for collaboration across the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The interactions of the BMD with the University of Maryland (UMD) through the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR) have led to synergies between the UMD and NIST. A roadmap is needed to ensure that this productive interaction continues into the future in a manner aligned with the goals of the BMD. This roadmap needs to include the commitment of the UMD to place faculty with aligned research interests in the IBBR. It also needs to describe the role of the IBBR in the context of the strategic goals of the BMD in order to establish new capabilities and expertise to enable protein production, to contribute to the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL), and to broadly impact biopharmaceutical manufacturing initiatives through improved measurement.
RECOMMENDATION 5: The Material Measurement Laboratory and the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR) should consider establishing a roadmap that describes the role of the IBBR in the context of the strategic goals of the Biomolecular Measurement Division.
The multiple divisions of the MML have shared goals (e.g., precision medicine for the BMD and the BBD) and shared capabilities (e.g., genomics in the BMD and the BBD). Groups within the divisions have complementary expertise to address challenges related to data analysis and management. There are, however, relatively few examples of crosscutting interactions that realize these potential synergies between divisions and between the groups of the divisions. The BMD needs to consider creating incentives and mechanisms to stimulate cross-group and cross-division interactions that could create new and existing programmatic synergies between the informatics efforts of the BMD and the ODI, and between the genomic and precision medicine efforts of the BMD and the BBD.
RECOMMENDATION 6: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider creating incentives and mechanisms to stimulate cross-group and cross-division interactions between the Biomolecular Measurement Division and the Office of Data and Informatics, and between the genomic and precision medicine efforts of the Biomolecular Measurement Division and the Biosystems and Biomaterials Division.
The laboratories in which the BMD is located on the main NIST campus are old, and there is a constant need for renovation and maintenance (e.g., to address leaking ceilings). Routine requests for maintenance take a very long time, in some cases months, to be addressed. NIST needs to further improve internal processes for approval and execution of requested maintenance needs in order to protect investments in complex and sensitive instrumentation within the BMD.
RECOMMENDATION 7: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consult with management of the National Institute of Standards and Technology to consider improving internal processes for approval and execution of requested maintenance needs within the Biomolecular Measurement Division.
The BMD’s website for SRMs is not currently organized around the needs of industry users. It could be reorganized to present SRMs grouped according to industries served by the SRMs (clinical diagnostics, biopharmaceutical, etc.). This has the potential to increase the use of SRMs, increase cost recovery for preparation of SRMs, and communicate to stakeholders the important role that NIST plays in enabling the competitiveness of U.S. industry and commerce. In addition, it will facilitate the adoption of SRMs that are new and not widely known to potential users.
RECOMMENDATION 8: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider evaluating the benefits of an improved Biomolecular Measurement Division website that markets standard reference materials for specific industries and federal agencies.
Biosystems and Biomaterials
The BBD has many ongoing projects and achievements, conducted within and outside of NIST. The BBD staff works closely with other MML divisions. Overall, the division possesses a high level of technical skills and works on cutting-edge science that requires both RMs and standards. The 101 staff members perform work in many areas. The division overall is lean in technical staff but has a superb group of Ph.D. scientists at all levels, from junior to very senior fellows. BBD scientists are conducting outstanding science. Key technical expertise in specialized instrumentation, however, has been lost and not replaced.
RECOMMENDATION 9: The Material Measurement Laboratory should make a concerted effort to maintain continuity in the staffing of critical positions within the Biosystems and Biomaterials Division.
Some of NIST’s laboratory infrastructure is not adequate for conducting particular experiments crucial to the BBD mission, such as a cell culture up to Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2) standards. This is owed to dust in older ducts and excess storage in laboratory space.
RECOMMENDATION 10: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider engaging with NIST’s central operations to find ways to improve the Biosystems and Biomaterials Division’s building infrastructure.
Equipment has an institutional overhead cost of 50 percent to pay for human resources and safety. BBD staff indicated that equipment taxes significantly reduce the amount of equipment they can purchase.
RECOMMENDATION 11: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider engaging with NIST’s central operations to find ways to minimize the Biosystems and Biomaterials Division’s overhead burden.
In total, 115 scientific staff members and approximately 50 associates in the CSD are supported by only 4 technicians and 8 support staff. As a result, Ph.D. scientists are doing most of the laboratory work that could be done by technicians. They are also executing most of the administrative tasks required for their R&D work. To increase the productivity and satisfaction level of its scientific staff, the CSD could provide administrative support for nonscientific tasks and technician support for laboratory work and data analyses that do not require Ph.D. training.
RECOMMENDATION 12: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider increasing the Chemical Sciences Division’s support staff both for administrative tasks and for technician support.
The CSD could maximize the number and quality of NIST and NRC postdoctoral fellows arriving in the division. There are currently no NIST fellows in the CSD and only three of the CSD’s eight groups have an NRC postdoctoral fellow—three in one group, and one in each of the other two groups. The uneven distribution of these fellows among CSD groups and among MML divisions suggests that only a few people are utilizing the best methods for attracting excellent postdoctoral researchers.
RECOMMENDATION 13: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider maximizing the number and quality of National Institute of Standards and Technology and National Research Council postdoctoral fellows within the Chemical Sciences Division.
Materials Measurement Science
The MMSD’s competency database is a good idea; however, the division needs to leverage other databases, such as publications and presentations, from which keywords could be extracted.
RECOMMENDATION 14: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider leveraging other databases outside of the Materials Measurement Science Division’s competency database.
Within the MMSD there needs to be transparency of how to succeed, especially for early career staff. One way to do so is to leverage NIST’s postdoctoral network with a professional development program. Such a program could help to improve connectivity across NIST.
RECOMMENDATION 15: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider leveraging the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s postdoctoral network with a professional development program in order to improve connectivity across NIST.
The MMSD largely excels in the rigor of the data it collects, through applying statistical analysis to optimize the quality of its data and conclusions. One challenge is in the consistency of applying experimental design and statistical analysis across all groups. Uniform application of experimental design (when the project is conducive to it) and statistical analysis is needed. Particularly for exploratory work, the design of experiments would improve efficiency in determining salient variables to explore.
RECOMMENDATION 16: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider making the application of the Materials Measurement Science Division’s experimental design and statistical analysis more uniform in order to improve the efficiency in determining salient variables to explore.
Materials Science and Engineering
The MSED is among the best in the world in terms of computational techniques and researchers. Although the staff is highly knowledgeable, laboratory equipment for making, processing, and to a lesser extent, preparing metallic alloys for testing are basic (with the exception of a new melt spinner for high solidification rate processing of metals). Numerous other facilities worldwide have better metallic processing laboratory equipment.
RECOMMENDATION 17: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider updating the Materials Science and Engineering Division’s laboratory equipment used for making, processing, and preparing metallic alloys for testing.
Office of Data and Informatics
Since its conception, the ODI’s technical activities have been largely focused more on data than on informatics. Now that they have succeeded in improving data access, it is time to work on tools that make the data more useful and easier to analyze. A roadmap is now needed to show management the importance of increasing their resources to enable informatics work and to solicit feedback from their customers on their plans. The MML needs to prepare a 3-year roadmap for the ODI to develop information and analytics tools. A 3-year plan will enable the MML to show how the ODI will ramp up. In years 2 and 3, the ODI can obtain feedback from their customers that will enable it to do longer term planning.
RECOMMENDATION 18: The Material Measurement Laboratory should prepare a 3-year roadmap for the Office of Data and Informatics to develop information and analytics tools.
Data preservation is useless unless there is enough associated metadata to enable interpretation of the data years later. The same issue applies to publishing data to satisfy the open data mandate. However, it is tedious to capture and record that metadata manually. To avoid that manual effort and to free up scientists to do science, it would be beneficial if there were an automated system that captures the metadata from instruments and associates it with the data. Therefore, to facilitate data preservation and meet the open data mandate required for government agencies, the ODI needs to acquire or develop a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) in order to pull metadata with data from instruments. This would make such data easy to transform into publishable data.
RECOMMENDATION 19: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider acquiring or developing a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) for the Office of Data and Informatics.
There has been strong engagement between the ODI, the MSED, and the MMSD through the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) program. However, there are many other significant data science efforts in divisions within the MML that could be engaged by the ODI. The ODI needs to coordinate and engage with other data science efforts within the MML to learn their best practices in data preservation, curation, and informatics, and to share that learning with all of the MML.
RECOMMENDATION 20: The Office of Data and Informatics should engage divisions within the Material Measurement Laboratory that have significant data science efforts in order to learn their best practices in data preservation, curation, and informatics, and to share that information with the rest of the Material Measurement Laboratory.
Office of Reference Materials
The ORM appears to be a highly successful operation that directly supports the mission of NIST and U.S. commerce overall. The ORM operates much differently from the other units within the MML and NIST. It does not conduct the type of research performed by MML divisions, and the majority of the ORM work involves managing and maintaining the SRM sales business that includes marketing,
production, sales, quality control, e-commerce, packaging, and distributions. The emerging partnership with the UMD to examine marketing and customer engagement strategies, and similar efforts with other external institutions, is commendable. At the same time, the ORM needs to consider an external examination of its overall business practices, the adequacy of its e-commerce tools, the effectiveness of its marketing and sales operations, as well as other pertinent areas related to its operations.
RECOMMENDATION 21: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider an external examination of the Office of Reference Materials’ overall business practices, the adequacy of its e-commerce tools, the effectiveness of its marketing and sales operations, and other pertinent areas related to its operations.
The current allocation of working capital funds (WCFs) and service development funds is increasingly assigned to support recertification and production of existing product lines. This situation may present a risk to the ORM and its ability to produce new materials needed by emerging applications and industrial sectors. The MML needs to develop a strategy to optimize and prioritize the balance between existing product support and the research, production, and certification of new SRMs.
RECOMMENDATION 22: The Material Measurement Laboratory should develop a strategy for the Office of Reference Materials to optimize and prioritize the balance between existing product support and the research, production, and certification of new SRMs.
Packaging and distribution is a significant portion of the ORM operations. Appropriate packaging, handling, and long-term storage of SRMs are critical to the ORM mission. Existing capabilities are being stretched to their limit, and in some cases, may not be adequate for anticipated product offerings. NIST needs to undertake an effort to benchmark the state-of-the-art in industrial packaging and storage methods and develop a packaging modernization plan to support the ORM catalog of materials.
RECOMMENDATION 23: The Material Measurement Laboratory should consider undertaking an effort to benchmark the state of the art in industrial packaging and storage methods and develop a packaging modernization plan to support the Office of Reference Materials catalog of materials.
As part of a business operations review, the MML needs to examine current staffing and benchmark it against comparable e-commerce operations. Such an analysis would be performed in order to craft a strategic workforce development and staffing plan.
RECOMMENDATION 24: The Material Measurement Laboratory should examine current staffing in the Office of Reference Materials and benchmark it against comparable e-commerce operations to create a strategic workforce development and staffing plan.
The MML needs to examine current staffing structures in the ORM that are associated with the recertification of existing products and the development of new SRMs in order to more appropriately assign tasks to research and technician staff, and to encourage SRM-related work as part of the overall measurement science mission of the organization.
RECOMMENDATION 25: The Material Measurement Laboratory should examine current staffing structures in the Office of Reference Materials that are associated with recertification of existing products and the development of new standard reference materials to more appropriately assign tasks.
Many of the analytical instruments that are critical to the certification of SRMs within the ORM are
dated and do not represent the state of the art. There are commercially available upgrades that may increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the analysis and characterization of SRMs. Many of these measurements and instruments lend themselves to automation, which may reduce the burden on the research staff to perform routine labor-intensive tasks.
RECOMMENDATION 26: The Material Measurement Laboratory should conceive and implement a plan for replacing, refurbishing, and maintaining analytical laboratory instrumentation housed within the Office of Reference Materials that supports the certification of standard reference materials.
The space and facilities in the ORM that are needed to store biological materials appears to be reaching a limit in the current warehouse. As the breadth and number of perishable biological items increases, finding appropriate storage facilities and containers may become a significant challenge.
RECOMMENDATION 27: The Material Measurement Laboratory should develop and implement a plan to accommodate growth in the Office of Reference Materials’ storage needs that are associated with perishable biological materials.
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