The weak infrastructure highlighted in the 2015 assessment report1 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, the laboratories of some of the staff are housed 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, extend 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 2015 assessment 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 Quantum Physics Division—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 staff met with the Director of NIST (Dr. Walter Copan), 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 NIST Director reported this year that he is addressing this matter throughout the Department of Commerce (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’s discoveries into commercial space
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) so that
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.
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 Cooperative Research and Development Agreements and other partnerships that might offset costs, and decreasing costs it would otherwise incur using other clinical scanners in the area. In its work on quantitative nanostructure characterization, the Applied Physics Division (APD) may benefit from broader collaborations on different materials systems, recognizing that the group is not primarily a user community resource. 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 (MRI) machine that would assist in phantom design and enable testing on-site.
The Quantum Electromagnetics Division 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.)
The problem of transmitting time signals and comparing frequency standards in this new regime of precision poses a serious scientific and technical challenge. 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.