GENERAL CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The study identified a number of themes across the Material Measurement Laboratory (MML) divisions and offices 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. The recommendations in the following sections are grouped by division or office to provide actionable suggestions that address the unique needs of each; the two or three recommendations judged to be of greatest urgency for each division are included here. There are, in addition, several crosscutting themes that fall within the four items of the panel’s statement of task that will be discussed first.
As regards technical adequacy, MML conducts research that is exceptional. It has formal arrangements with renowned institutions such as Brookhaven National Laboratory and, in the IBBR, two campuses of the University of Maryland system. MML notes that areas of new opportunities include bioeconomy and engineering biology, data and artificial intelligence, and the circular economy. The MML has primary responsibility within NIST for standard reference materials (SRMs) and standard reference data (SRD). It maintains critical SRM and SRD and has developed these products in newer areas based on biology. The panel’s review showed that as the portfolio of SRM expands into new areas, such as biology, the MML will need to consider how to optimally allocate resources between maintaining legacy SRM versus re-purposing those resources towards SRM and SRD in new and emerging areas.
As regards the portfolio of scientific expertise, the resilience of MML’s program to retirements or unforeseen departures could be improved. In some places there needed to be more systematic succession planning to prevent gaps from occurring. Cross-training to provide backup coverage in case the primary cognizant scientist leaves is a further way to protect against disruption. In other instances, retraining to take on emerging issues requiring different disciplinary knowledge was lacking.
With respect to the adequacy of facilities and equipment, the research equipment utilized in the divisions of the MML supports or enables the delivery of the MML mission. The purchase, renewal and maintenance of such equipment—including maintaining the buildings that house them—are effected through a set of business practices and attitudes. The purchasing power of the divisions is impacted first by a 50 percent tax on equipment. This disadvantages equipment purchases for purposes of budget formulation by making the trade-off versus funding an additional staff position or other expenditures more acute. Further, the NIST working capital fund model for purchase of new equipment requires payback for any purchase from annual operating funds. The MML also noted these continuing challenges of aging and outdated building infrastructure and “large” equipment needs and uses.
Complicating this is the ongoing challenge in finding resources for maintaining existing infrastructure (leaky roofs, HVAC [heating, ventilation and cooling] in need of repair, etc.). Although, equipment and staff are appropriately prioritized over buildings, there have been instances where failures of the infrastructure compromised equipment and have impact on mission delivery. The buildings on the main NIST campus may have exceeded their design life and are otherwise in need of repair. Finding resources to address this is difficult but critical to maintaining infrastructure that is consistent with, and will support operations of exquisitely sensitive instruments, and the brand for excellence that is associated
with NIST worldwide. This includes modular laboratories that are flexible in use and can be relocated and/or reconfigured within a new room or building.
Lastly, as regards the dissemination of outputs, the MML could benefit from using its network of former postdocs as brand ambassadors, as was indicated in the 2017 review.1 The research staff continues to make its mark in journals. The laboratory continues to hold an impressive number of convening activities. Its staff are very well represented on federal interagency groups such as the National Science and Technology Council and in NGOs such as the International Organization for Standards (ISO). The MML could benefit from its permanent staff presenting more talks in various forums as a way of maintaining presence.
DIVISON- AND OFFICE-LEVEL RECOMMENDATIONS
Office of Reference Materials
RECOMMENDATION 3-1: The Office of Reference Materials (ORM) should plan and host a series of topic-focused workshops with participation from industry, academia, and other government organizations to benchmark and identify state-of-the-art business practices, ecommerce tools/platforms, marketing and sales operations, packaging, and other areas critical to its operations. As part of such an undertaking, ORM should assess the appropriateness and feasibility of outsourcing portions of its operations or the expanded use of public-private partnerships to increase efficiency of its operations including standard reference material fabrication, storage (inventory control), packaging, and other critical operations.
RECOMMENDATION 3-2: The Office of Reference Materials should develop processes and procedures to strategically select and prioritize the use of working capital funds toward high-demand products, which can maximize the throughput and return value; and examine methods to accelerate and evaluate the development of these new standard reference material products. The evaluation can be used to further promote and/or incentivize the MML division-level SRM development.
RECOMMENDATION 3-3: The Office of Reference Materials (ORM) should conduct informational symposia and workshops to better communicate the vital role that ORM plays in the mission of NIST and to highlight success stories. The office should also provide more systematic evaluation feedback and greater incentives for MML division staff to more effectively and efficiently develop new standard reference materials that are aligned with the needs of industry..
Office of Data and Informatics
RECOMMENDATION 4-1: The Material Measurement Laboratory management should promote the concept of “data as an asset” and its associated culture within the Laboratory. With that understanding, management can be expected to advocate and support its adoption throughout the organization, resulting in increased professionalism within NIST, higher quality of output by NIST, increased impact of NIST products on the STEM world, and public perception of NIST as a leader.
1 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017, An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Material Measurement Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2017, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
RECOMMENDATION 4-2: The Office of Data and Informatics (ODI) should build out structures for enhancing divisional interactions. One concrete mechanism for this is to create tightly integrated multidisciplinary teams, which include ODI domain expertise as an integral part of a research team. The concept of “research software engineering” has been advocated as one such mechanism for creating research teams that can respond to the centrality of data and computation in a research activity.
RECOMMENDATION 4-3: The “software carpentry” program should be expanded to include rotations of postdocs through ODI for more extensive, hands-on guidance. In addition, identifying postdocs in the MML divisions with an understanding of the importance of sound computational techniques and establishing joint mentorship programs with those divisions and ODI would be beneficial.
RECOMMENDATION 4-4: The Material Measurement Laboratory should enhance engagement with creation/integration of reference materials.
Materials Science and Engineering
RECOMMENDATION 5-1: The Materials Science and Engineering Division (MSED) should consider investment in additional high-performance computing resources to continue the comparative advantage the Thermodynamics and Kinetics group holds. In making such investments, MSED should maintain balance with empirical approaches.
RECOMMENDATION 5-2: The Materials Science and Engineering Division should develop a clear articulation of a broad-based strategic plan of the division and state how that plan reflects the overarching strategic plan of the Material Measurement Laboratory.
RECOMMENDATION 5-3: The Material Measurement Laboratory (MML) should evaluate how it budgets new equipment purchases and how this figures in to the resource management in its divisions. The MML should further remain aware of the damage to equipment due to flooding and other problems with buildings and facilities.
RECOMMENDATION 5-4: The Material Measurement Laboratory should increase its activities aimed at communicating its accomplishments to its customers, collaborators, and audiences. This should include greater effort at highlighting results from the primary work of the laboratory. This could be accomplished using forms of media such as YouTube and improving the effectiveness of the NIST website by adding specific examples of unique and transformative contributions.
Materials Measurement Science Division
RECOMMENDATION 6-1: The Materials Measurement Science Division (MMSD) should increase the degree to which it utilizes its customers for feedback on new products and information with regard to emerging opportunities. To this end, the Material Measurement Laboratory should utilize a process for obtaining feedback. MMSD should increase its interaction with the offices managing sales of such products at NIST.
RECOMMENDATION 6-2: The Materials Measurement Science Division should evaluate whether to move some of the work of the Materials for Energy and Sustainable Development group (e.g., X-ray Metrology) to another group (e.g., Materials Structure and Data Group) and refocus the former group’s efforts on materials data and artificial intelligence approaches.
RECOMMENDATION 6-3: The Materials Measurement Science Division should conduct additional intra-divisional collaboration, which might be exploited to add fundamental understanding for the benefit of the research component of the work going forward.
RECOMMENDATION 6-4: The management of the Materials Measurement Science Division will need to continue to evaluate and understand the impact of the change in staff numbers and redistribution of workloads. Specifically, there needs to be a shared understanding of the division mission that justifies staff numbers.
RECOMMENDATION 6-5: The Materials Measurement Science Division (MMSD) should examine ways to recruit and retain greater numbers of female scientific staff. MMSD staff should all work to enhance the visibility of NIST as a career option through technical meeting/society activities and university interactions. All team members should ensure inclusiveness and assist with career development of the diverse workforce, including the careers of associates and post docs.
RECOMMENDATION 6-6: The Materials Measurement Science Division should prioritize the division’s needs for upgrading/replacement of equipment and explore centralizing commonly used instrumentation at the division or laboratory level.
Biosystems and Biomaterials Division
RECOMMENDATION 7-1: The Biosystems and Biomaterials Division (BBD) should (1) with creativity, develop a business strategy that focuses on BBD’s unique products that may include licensing and further consortia for use of BBD products, services, and expertise; (2) strategically place BBD postdoctoral fellows into industry, academia, and other government positions to improve connectivity with outside current and future collaborators and stakeholders; (3) hire or contract with a communications person with YouTube and other media expertise to reach individuals who are searching for BBD-type expertise, products, and research services; and (4) determine how to connect with quality and manufacturing personnel at small and medium-sized companies in targeted industries. Emphasizing NIST BBD leadership, with thoughtfulness and quantification, in BBD program areas should be addressed by BBD leadership and staff to further enhance leadership with collaborators and stakeholders.
RECOMMENDATION 7-2: The Biosystems and Biomaterials Division should improve awareness of its products and capabilities, especially within small to medium-size enterprises and companies that are not currently stakeholders because they are in different industries (e.g., agriculture).
RECOMMENDATION 7-3: The Material Measurement Laboratory should evaluate whether the square footage assigned the Biosystems and Biomaterials Division is commensurate with the division’s current size and mission.
RECOMMENDATION 7-4: The Biosystems and Biomaterials Division should provide additional resources in thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, colloidal science, virology, immunology, microbiology, and bioinformatics in a manner commensurate with the increasing importance of these specialties.
RECOMMENDATION 7-5: The Biosystems and Biomaterials Division should analyze underserved minority representation among its staff and develop an action plan to address findings both from such study and from NIST’s equity disparity studies.
RECOMMENDATION 7-6: The Biosystems and Biomaterials Division should develop a plan for outplacing long-tenured postdoctoral fellows into synergistic positions in industry, academia, or government. This plan should include an assessment of what shortfall, if any, this might create in its staffing plans.
RECOMMENDATION 7-7: The Biosystems and Biomaterials Division leadership should implement cross-training of staff with intent during each year to mitigate the effects of loss of key staff and ensure continuity.
Biomolecular Measurement Division
RECOMMENDATION 8-1: The Biological Measurement Division (BMD) should evaluate its portfolio of expertise of staff with expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning as applied to the measurement tools specifically in BMD. BMD might want to consider a joint hire with another division to leverage additional expertise and resources, or develop a more centralized collaboration model (i.e., community of practice) to make enhanced use of AI/ML expertise.
RECOMMENDATION 8-2: The Biological Measurement Division (BMD) should develop a strategy to assess agriculture, veterinary science, biocatalysis, and environmental and marine research areas as possible opportunities for growth and sources of additional collaborations and funding.
Chemical Sciences Division
RECOMMENDATION 9-1: The Chemical Sciences Division (CSD) should consider administrative changes to give greater definition to connectivity among the division’s scientists, including binning the teams in CSD to make commonalities with other groups more apparent; and, as warranted, splitting larger divisions and aggregating the groups into new divisions where similarities are strongest.
RECOMMENDATION 9-2: The Chemical Sciences Division should evaluate its portfolio to determine the fit to Material Measurement Laboratory’s (MML’s) strategy with a view toward adoption of a “steady state”’ economic model in which new costs are paid for by pruning existing operations. Alternatively, MML could adopt a “pay as you go” model in which they would add new programs, instrumentation, employees, and so forth as new funds become available, or by intentionally pursuing external funding in strategic areas.
RECOMMENDATION 9-3: The MML should create an instrumentation strategic plan as a useful mechanism to define the current status of instruments via a census (item, age, location, status, responsible person, availability) and prioritization of new instrumentation, as well as identify internal and external support (funds). The MML should also consider developing a plan for maintenance and eventual instrument replacement (where needed) as well as a means of relocating or repurposing underutilized resources.
RECOMMENDATION 9-4: The Chemical Sciences Division (CSD) should remain in contact with postdoctoral (NRC and Associate) and other categories of associates who have left CSD as a way of collecting input on emerging areas of concern, problems of note, and feedback on the adoption and implementation of CSD and Material Measurement Laboratory efforts.
Applied Chemicals and Materials Dvision
RECOMMENDATION 10-1: The Applied Chemicals and Materials Division should create a capital equipment replacement plan that considers also the requirements for space and ongoing maintenance.
RECOMMENDATION 10-2: The Applied Chemicals and Materials Division should take steps to realize the true value of standard reference data and standard reference materials thereby enabling revenue for growth of new programs.
RECOMMENDATION 10-3: MML should (1) clearly define the Applied Chemicals and Materials Division’s (ACMD’s) mission and how ACMD aligns within the Material Measurement Laboratory mission; and (2) integrate teams more closely with corresponding efforts in NIST Gaithersburg facilities.
RECOMMENDATION 10-4: The Applied Chemicals and Materials Division should continue to increase the number of high-risk projects.
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