In 2017, at the request of the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed the Panel on Review of Four Divisions of the Physical Measurement Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (the “panel”) and established the following statement of task:
The National Academies shall appoint a panel to assess independently the scientific and technical work performed by four divisions of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Physical Measurement Laboratory. This panel will review technical reports and technical program descriptions prepared by NIST staff and will visit the facilities of four divisions of the Physical Measurement Laboratory. The visit will include technical presentations by NIST staff, demonstrations of NIST projects, tours of NIST facilities, and discussions with NIST staff. The panel will deliberate findings in closed sessions of the panel meeting and will prepare a report summarizing its assessment findings.
NIST specified that the following four divisions of the Physical Measurement Laboratory (PML) would be reviewed: Applied Physics Division (APD), Quantum Electromagnetics Division (QED), Time and Frequency Division (TFD), and the Quantum Physics Division (QPD). All four of these divisions are located in Boulder, Colorado, and were visited by the panel on May 1-3, 2018.
Previous Appraisal of PML Enterprise
The Summary of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) assessment of the PML in 2015, which included both Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado, locations, had general observations that began as follows:1,2
The PML remains an outstanding institution of the highest standards and accomplishments. Broadly speaking, the PML is dedicated to three fundamental and complementary tasks: (1) increase the accuracy of our knowledge of the physical parameters that are the foundation of our technology-driven society; (2) disseminate technologies by which these physical parameters can be accessed in a standardized way by the stakeholders; and (3) conduct research at both fundamental and applied levels to provide knowledge that may eventually lead to advances in measurement approaches and standards.
1 National Research Council, 2016, An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Physical Measurement Laboratory—Fiscal Year 2015, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
2 Effective July 1, 2015, the institution has been called the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. References in this report to the National Research Council are used in a historical context identifying programs prior to July 1, 2015.
The scientific staff is of uniformly high quality, but preserving the quality of the staff will be a challenge because of the large number of anticipated retirements of such excellent staff. The physical infrastructure of the PML is heterogeneous and complex but still fundamentally adequate to the tasks at hand. It is generally of a world-class quality, although there remain some weak infrastructure areas in the Radiation Physics Division that need to be addressed immediately.
The PML is a large organization, dispersed on two main campuses, one at Gaithersburg, Maryland, the other at Boulder, Colorado.
It is vital that the excellence of the PML be maintained as the United States faces increasing competition for resources and technology from rapidly advancing countries.
Current Appraisal of the Success of PML Enterprise
The present committee fully backs the assessment made in 2015. It is heartening to see the extent to which PML maintains outstanding staff, operating with the highest standards and accomplishments at levels that are often among the best in the world. All divisions within the Boulder group were found to have achieved impressive results and to operate at the highest levels in each of the three tasks listed above. The PML seems to be able to find the expertise they need within their institution or other institutions—universities, private organizations, and other government institutions.
No gaps in PML’s scientific expertise were found such as might hinder excellent technical performance of the tasks that PML has chosen to perform, nor were other tasks identified that PML should be performing. PML is fully capable of supporting its technical programs with the ability to achieve its stated objectives. No area of concern was identified with respect to scientific expertise. Dissemination of research results and interaction with relevant external communities are excellent and include work with standards-setting groups, provision of calibration services, and development of industrially and medically useful techniques.
Challenges to PML’s Achieving Its Goals
The 2015 NRC report noted concern for possible staff turnover due to retirements. The staff at the divisions reviewed this year has met this challenge very successfully. Unexpectedly large turnover was partly caused by the unanticipated death of a very successful researcher. However, no projects were dropped or diminished, primarily because of the interactive group structure in the research laboratories. Unusually large turnover in the administration has caused minimal disruption, because staff stepped up to address PML needs and met the unexpected challenges.
PML did report considerable turnover, much of it due to the short-term nature of many technical appointments, including graduate fellowships, visiting faculty, and other short-term visitors. Retirements occur as usual, but it seems that many professional staff who leave do so for other technical opportunities.
Discussions with several women staff suggested that it would be important for the PML to investigate analytically whether the excellent technical support that is provided to the women is complemented by support for their career goals, including promotion, and for the PML to act upon the results of that analysis as appropriate. The PML reported that they have an acceptably good record in recruiting women early in their careers, but promotions have not kept up with the norms for other institutions. Data can be collected to establish whether there is indeed basis for concern, and to identify the issues in which possible inequitable treatment manifests itself.
There appears to be a need for a human resources professional resident at the Boulder campus—someone who can get to know the staff and respond to career considerations in a timely manner. A resident human resources professional could monitor promotional norms and assure that they were the same across the institution for equivalently performing individuals, independent of their gender, age, race, or other relevant demographic variables. The PML staff have appointed one woman to take on the retention of women as her task, but she apparently has no specific training or experience in this role. It is
not clear how much difference she can make without authority. A further possible approach might be to establish a review group of NIST and non-NIST scientists who could establish the appropriate analytics for management to track on a longitudinal basis to monitor this issue and advise on any new policies.
The weak infrastructure highlighted in the 2015 report persists in some areas. NIST responded to this challenge by bringing on board the new Katharine Blodgett Gebbie Laboratory Building, which is devoted to research. Some fortunate PML staff have excellent research space in that new building. At the same time, however, some staff laboratories are in a building that has not been upgraded since the 1960s. The environmental controls in the laboratory space need to be improved. While the ability of PML researchers to operate in less-than-optimal physical space was impressive, they are rapidly reaching the day when the decaying infrastructure will limit their ability to perform their necessary duties, continue the accuracy of the standards that PML researchers have developed, and show the applicability of their research to ever-advancing high-tech industry.
Recommendation 1. The PML should develop with NIST management a plan to remodel and upgrade, as soon as possible, the infrastructure utilized by the PML and should perform an assessment to determine which PML infrastructure assets are weakest in supporting the scientific mission.
The researchers at PML are aware of the competition they have throughout the world. Fortunately, they have been allowed to travel when needed to conferences and workshops, giving papers and talks. This keeps them abreast of breakthroughs in their respective fields. They seem admirably up-to-date technically. Their technical and scientific awareness is at the level of the highest educational institutions in the United States and considerably more than in many government laboratories. It is urgent that the government continues to fund this travel. Similarly, access to a variety of library resources is critical. Portions of PML have the good fortune to be located on the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU) campus, and researchers have access to their state-of-the-art libraries.
The ability to purchase or have access to state-of-the-art equipment is also crucial to maintaining a world-class effort. Researchers expressed faith that continued funding would be available through the Department of Commerce (DOC). This faith is crucial to maintaining forward-looking researchers with ambitious plans—the kind that have made PML world-class in many areas. NIST in Boulder is fortunate to have the backing of both current Colorado senators. Nonetheless, the funding profile in recent years does not suggest long-range stability of the funding of PML. Funding for JILA—a joint organization of NIST and the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU), established in 1962 and located on the CU campus—has recently benefited from being awarded an additional 5 years from the National Science Foundation, but nothing is guaranteed after that. The management at PML, in collaboration with NIST upper management, needs to do long-range planning about what to do if the funding dips. PML is hiring a person to market PML to private entities, with the plan to ultimately cover any loss of government funds. This is an essential endeavor.
Patents and Intellectual Property
The 2015 NRC report noted that NIST procedures and policies relating to patents and intellectual property (IP) were not clearly defined for technical staff. The present panel revisited this issue and found, for example, that JILA—the host institution of the QPD—is mostly engaged in basic scientific research not compatible with patent protection and licensing. Protecting some of the work would allow its translation into the commercial sector. Without IP protection, companies will not want to invest the time and money to complete translation to market. Incentives for JILA researchers could be constructed that
reward IP development, compatible with government restrictions, in a manner that does not distort the basic scientific effort but promotes technology transfer.
At the conclusion of the committee’s site visit, the chair of the committee and National Academies staff met with the Director of NIST, who explained that a priority for him was developing and regularizing workable procedures and policy positions on patents and IP for all parts of NIST. The Director reported this year that he is addressing this matter throughout the DOC, so that all DOC staff, including those at NIST, will be afforded a clear understanding of IP procedures and policies. NIST researchers need to be part of the conversation. The prospect of changes in patent and IP procedures and policies, being developed by the NIST Director, is encouraging and represents an opportunity for PML to regularize these procedures.
Recommendation 2. The PML should maintain awareness of changes in patent and intellectual property procedures to encourage and more efficiently enable the movement of PML discoveries into commercial space.
Collaboration Across Organizational Boundaries
Divisions in PML are meeting the needs of stakeholders in other laboratories of NIST. Within PML itself, there is an opportunity for greater interaction and dissemination of results between the Time and Frequency Division and the Quantum Physics Division, which are located on different campuses.
Applied Physics Division
The seven groups of the APD are broadly concerned with measurement of electromagnetic radiation and address stakeholder needs in a range of applications, including magnetic imaging in health care, quantum communication and computing, brain network cognitive processes simulation, single photon detection, gas sensing, and other areas.
The APD has responded to a global need to standardize and calibrate magnetic resonance (MR) imaging and spectroscopy systems used in clinical medicine and medical research by successfully fabricating phantoms that allow not only physical system calibration but also allow evaluation of slight differences in pulse sequences, including radio frequency (RF) and gradient protocols. A major innovation from the Magnetic Resonance Group is the development of new micro- and nanoparticle-based contrast agents for new MR imaging and sensing schemes. The high-moment synthetic antiferromagnet nanoparticles provide enhanced contrast in T2-weighted studies for in vivo cell-tracking and remote sensing of biological tissue mechanical stresses in human physiology research.
The success of atmospheric horizontal and vertical path assessment of gases (e.g., carbon dioxide and methane) using fiber-based optical comb technology opens new and highly accurate methodologies for monitoring a large volume of three-dimensional air space by remote and flexible systems. This technology has the potential for a significant improvement in environmental monitoring.
Quantum computation relies on fast and high fidelity coupling between quantum information-holding systems. The Advanced Microwave Photonics Group has developed a parametric-based architecture that dramatically increases the connectivity between qubits, thereby advancing significantly the practicality of quantum computing.
Three groups in this division are engaged in development of neuromorphic systems designed to simulate circuit functions of the human brain’s memory and data processing functions by utilizing superconducting single flux quantum (SFQ) and spintronics devices that will measure spatial and temporal correlations in high-density networks to understand memory and data processing. The group has
developed a stochastic model of magnetic Josephson junctions suitable for high-density neural simulations. The circuits allow simulation of most known neurophysiology functions, including inhibition.
One of the groups is extending atom probe tomography to include laser-assisted tomography and extreme atom probe tomography and is extending this work to the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) regime and adding in situ transmission electron microscopy analysis. This work has the potential to significantly advance the practical utility of atom probe tomography.
Quantum Electromagnetics Division
The QED’s interdisciplinary program of research focuses on high-performance computing; superconductive electronics, quantum sensors, nanomagnetic measurements, and spin electronics; and molecular photonics and biophotonics. The division is also responsible for the Boulder Microfabrication Facility, utilized by NIST-Boulder and its direct collaborators.
The QED develops highly precise measurements and instrumentation using a range of techniques and phenomena such as Josephson standards and millimeter-wavelength detectors. The division maintains a programmable DC voltage standard with current demonstrated accuracy to a few parts in 1011. This has been disseminated to national metrology institutes (NMIs) in other countries and is available for sale as a certified NIST reference instrument.
The QED has maintained the microfabrication facility’s impressive capabilities; adding an e-beam lithography tool has allowed greatly enhanced resolution (below 10 nm), essential for magnetic sensors and devices. The new clean room has been key in enabling production of the large (150 mm) wafers that are essential in current and future astronomy projects.
Time and Frequency Division
The mission of the TFD is to provide official U.S. time and frequency, entailing not only their accurate realization but also their dissemination through various devices and services. A measure of the value of the service NIST provides in dissemination is the 40 billion Internet synchronization requests it serves each day. Additionally, the TFD performs state-of-the-art research in time and frequency and related technologies. As an example, two independent ytterbium lattice frequency standards were constructed within the TFD, which demonstrated agreement to better than one part in 1018, nearly a factor of five beyond the previous state-of-the-art research in atomic clock. The division has also made important contributions to research in optical frequency combs, quantum information/computing, and chip-scale atomic clocks and sensors.
Quantum Physics Division
The QPD is the NIST component of JILA and operates within a cooperative agreement between NIST and CU. The QPD/JILA cooperative addresses measurement science, including focus areas of quantum many-body physics, quantum technologies, and more recently, biophysics. The division’s optical lattice clocks have a precision of approximately 10−19, with the further promise to reach 10−21, owing to development of a fermionic atomic lattice clock. A further accomplishment is the realization of a superradiant laser that is 500,000 times less sensitive to cavity length than conventional stable lasers. In biophysics, QPD utilized biological atomic force microscopy (AFM) for membrane protein studies and achieved record time resolution (~1 µs) and low noise.
ADDITIONAL CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Applied Physics Division
Instrumentation and space resources are excellent for most of the groups, but the Magnetic Resonance Imaging group is badly in need of a clinical-class magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner so that appropriate phantom design, as well as initial testing, can be readily accomplished without going to other sites. NIST has access to nearby clinical commercial MRI systems, but nonetheless might evaluate whether a clinical system of its own might not improve productivity by eliminating wait times, providing opportunities for CRADAs and other partnerships that might offset costs, and decreasing costs it would otherwise occur using other clinical scanners in the area. In its work on quantitative nanostructure characterization, APD may benefit from broader collaborations on different materials systems. APD’s work on advanced microwave photonics applied to quantum computing and its stakeholder community would benefit from experimental validation or the development of theoretical manuscripts describing the proposals.
Recommendation 3. PML should study the costs and benefits of acquiring a clinical-class magnetic resonance imaging machine that would assist in phantom design and enable testing onsite.
Quantum Electromagnetics Division
The QED would benefit from increased guidance on the value to NIST of patent activity vis-à-vis journal publications and other metrics. (See Recommendation 2 above.) The environmental controls in the laboratory space need to be improved. The aging facilities have problems with the building envelope, such as the observed roof leaks. (See Recommendation 1 above.)
Time and Frequency Division
The problem of transmitting time signals and comparing frequency standards in this new regime of precision poses a serious scientific and technical challenge for the TFD. Comparisons in the same laboratory are relatively straightforward, but the problem of comparisons at large distances remains to be solved.
Recommendation 4. PML should continue its work to develop methods for distributing time over long distances at the newly attainable levels of precision.
Quantum Physics Division
QPD/JILA has strong overlapping interests with other PML divisions, such as the TFD. Because QPD/JILA is housed in a CU facility and not at NIST Boulder, there is little trickle down to QPD/JILA of technical improvements in TFD.