Standards Opportunities and Challenges
The director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology talks about the institute, its realignment, and the ongoing and growing importance of standards.
The White House has indicated a strong interest in standards policy and has taken the unprecedented step of creating a new Subcommittee on Standards within the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Technology. As co-chairman of this subcommittee, would you discuss why was it formed and how you expect it will impact both the standards developing community and technology development in the United States?
The new Subcommittee on Standards was established under the National Science and Technology Council to promote leadership engagement by the federal agencies on standards issues. The NSTC is a formal interagency process, the machinery, if you will, within the Office of Science and Technology Policy, to coordinate policy development and related work.
Why did we create this group? To a level that I have not experienced before, standards-related issues are becoming a major driver in how a federal government agency needs to carry out its mission.
Technology itself is playing an increasingly important role in achieving policy goals, whether that's improving the quality of health care, lowering its cost or diversifying energy generation and promoting renewable energy sources to combat climate change. One of the ways that you can set the stage for technologies to take hold is through a standards framework; I think there will be a long list of areas where the government will care about how standards unfold.
Technologies themselves are becoming systems of systems, not component-based technology like a widget that will fix something but rather technology infrastructures for health or electricity management systems. Those are complicated; there are multiple players and standards play an enormous role in defining how those systems work.
We now have, maybe for the first time, attention at the most senior levels of government as to how the system works and how we convey our requirements to those who are developing those standards.
Could this have resulted in a more government-driven process? I think it could have, but wisely, there has been a very strong realization of the advantages we have in our current private sector-driven standards process. However, if those standards are going to be responsive to public needs, we have to work across agency boundaries and define what we need so that private sector developers put the right standards framework in place.
The idea is to become more proactive and less reactive, and get federal agencies to define where we're going. Then we can design strategic approaches: how do we get these requirements out to the private sector, how do we provide incentives for implementing the resulting standards and how fast do the standards need to be put in place? Looking at it that way, it became clear that we needed to get leaders around the table.
NIST coordinates the activities of the Interagency Committee on Standards Policy. How can agencies work more effectively together and with the private sector in terms of standards needs?
The Subcommittee on Standards at the NSTC and the Interagency Committee on Standards Policy will interact very strongly; NIST chairs or co-chairs both of them. That has been done deliberately to tie these two activities together. The subcommittee is at the agency head, the decision level, but the ICSP is composed of the standards experts.
We think there's going to be a very strong push and pull between the two committees. In some cases, ICSP may be making decisions that decision makers need to pay attention to in developing policy positions. In other cases, the decision makers may ask the ICSP to improve coordination in certain areas. We absolutely need strong expert-driven coordination. You can't force interagency coordination, but these are all the right ingredients for it to happen.
How are you planning to realign the National Institute of Standards and Technology to meet new challenges and advance the industrial competitiveness and economic prosperity of the United States?
As it is currently structured, NIST has a director, a presidential appointee who is Senate confirmed. That's the only political appointee at this agency, which is unusual for government. NIST also has a career deputy director and more than 18 line organizations reporting to the director's office.
NIST is very diverse technically and programmatically, and we've had a tremendous amount of turnover both in the director and the deputy director positions. I felt this was really an unstable arrangement, so the first phase of the realignment is to replace the deputy director position with three associate directors who have responsibility for the major programmatic or support roles. There will be an associate director for laboratory programs, which heads up the largest of the four NIST areas. There will be an associate director for innovation and industry services, which has responsibility for innovation activities, technology transfer, economic analysis and our three external-facing programs - the Baldrige National Quality Award program, the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership program and the Technology Innovation Program. The third associate director will oversee management resources, such as facilities, human resources, financial systems, information technology and safety programs.
This first phase of the realignment has been fully approved by the Obama administration and by the U.S. Congress.
The second phase of the realignment has been approved by the administration, and it has been forwarded to Congress for their review. It concerns the structure of the laboratory program organizations. We have been, since the late 1980s, organized into discipline-based groups, much like a university.
The services that NIST provides - measurement services, data, the standard reference materials program, the metric program, our documentary standards activities - will be fully integrated with our research activities so that alongside these services we will have the laboratory personnel who are the experts for carrying out them out. This is why I refer to this new structure as "mission-based," as opposed to our current discipline-based organization.
There are currently 10 laboratories and user facilities. Our two national user facilities, the Center for Neutron Research and the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, would remain unchanged. We're thinking of realigning the other eight laboratories into four and re-integrating them so that each laboratory carries out a portion of the NIST laboratory mission, including research and services in a given discipline. For example, the Physical Measurement Laboratory carries out basic physical measurements - time, length, mass, electrical charge - but also includes applied science and applied measurement, such as in a manufacturing context, and supporting services that perform calibration services, measurement methods, the metric program, our lab accreditation program and things of that type.
The other three would be the Material Measurement Laboratory, which will carry out our program to disseminate and be a national reference laboratory for chemical properties, biological properties and materials properties, and two technology laboratories: the Information Technology Laboratory, which will carry out our specific set of missions in that area, and an Engineering Laboratory, which will carry out a very specific set of technology missions in fire research, disaster-resilient buildings, advanced manufacturing technology and things of that type.
What benefits do you anticipate from the reorganization?
On the one hand the reorganization is not a change in direction for the agency at all. The advantage that I'm trying to realize is to be more effective in carrying out our mission. The biggest change will be for the new laboratory directors; they will be held responsible for carrying out a very specific portion of our mission, and I'm giving them all the assets that they need to do that.
The reorganization is designed around the fact that NIST finds itself today with a mission that's really important: industrial competitiveness and the health of our manufacturing base. These things are critical. The real focus at NIST is not shopping for new things that we need to do; the real task is making us as effective as possible in carrying it out.
How do you anticipate that the reorganization will impact the U.S.-based standards development system?
I hope the reorganization has an impact, but not that of a government takeover or any shift in the private-public nature of the U.S. approach to standards development. I think that at NIST and at the White House level there's strong support for the standards development model that we use in this country. The model has enormous advantages in bringing industries' priorities directly to the table and putting tremendous capability and know-how on standards committees. No one is trying to change that at all.
However, because issues involving standards are becoming more critical, it's really important that NIST be able to work effectively with our private partners in developing standards. I hope that having, for example, lab directors who are measured on how well they carry out a part of our mission makes us more responsive and more focused on the tasks at hand.
We will also continue to do cutting-edge research, which sets the stage for being able to execute our mission in the future. I hope the reorganization means that we're even more responsive and participatory in the standards development process than we are now.
In your recent testimony before Congress, you suggested that NIST's smart grid work could be viewed as a model for future standards development activities in areas of significant government interest and national need. What is the basis for this suggestion and are there specific areas of need that you have in mind?
It is important to emphasize that it's "a" model, it's not "the" model. I singled out the smart grid in my testimony because it's getting a lot of attention, not just because of the smart grid itself but the interactions it has generated. Smart grid work has a very active public-private partnership; it has a formal governance board and advisory committee structures that support it.
There has been a mistaken perception that the relationship between the government and standards developers has to take one of two forms. One is what I call the passive or laissez faire model, where the government participates but doesn't really drive anything. In the other, the government writes its own standards through regulation, procurement or by law. The cyber security authority that NIST has to write standards to protect federal IT systems is a very specific authority; in that case we develop the standards.
If you start looking at the kinds of standards-related problems that are coming up, these two approaches do not give you a rich enough toolbox. I wanted more options to be available.
There will be many opportunities where the approach is industry-driven, and we simply participate. There still may be some examples where an agency has to develop its own approach, but there are other situations where the private sector and federal agencies can work in a much more active and deliberate partnership. Health IT and smart grid are both good examples of that.
One of the first activities for the NSTC Subcommittee on Standards is to flesh out various strategic approaches to standards development. We'll start developing some best practices, a playbook if you will, so that when we talk about a future agency standards need, we can also be looking at the best way for us to work with the private sector. The more options we have, the better off we'll be.
What role do international standards developed in the U.S. play in today's global economy? What is the role of NIST in promoting such standards in the U.S. and abroad?
An essential role.
An international standard is really a standard developed in conformity with an international approach, with international principles. The traditional notion of identifying whether a standard is international or national by origin is actually becoming a little bit passé.
The reality is that if you talk to industry, it's clear what they want. They're most advantaged when they know what standard they design and build to and that that standard is as global as possible.
In many cases that is exactly the interest we in the government have. If we're working on smart grid technologies we're concerned about the U.S. electrical distribution system, but we hope we're stimulating economic activity from our producers. If manufacturers can sell in global markets, that's an advantage to our country as well. The world is simply getting smaller and international standards are simply critical.
NIST has always had a role in promoting standards, and I think that role is going to continue and grow as this global perspective on standards becomes more important.
How has the role of technology in the U.S. economy changed in the last 20 years? How do standards fit into this new terrain? How would a reorganized NIST reflect these changes?
The foundation of NIST came at the peak of the Industrial Revolution, the very beginning of the 20th century, and the agency has always been centered around technology to some extent. What's interesting is to reflect on how this role has evolved over time. NIST work is still largely about infrastructures, but the infrastructures themselves are becoming more technologically advanced. It's not simply the movement, let's say, of people or goods in new ways, it's often now about the movement of ideas, data and knowledge, and combining them, as with the smart grid, where cyber-physical technologies take the power of information management to control physical distribution or control systems.
The real change over the last 20 years is the rise of information technology and how powerful it is. We know how IT has touched so many things; it's hard to believe that Web browsers were just coming into existence when I came to NIST 16 years ago. These are extremely disruptive technologies in that they open up entirely new capabilities and opportunities. That will continue. Technology consists now of interacting systems, not simply components. For example, an iPad or an Android phone doesn't live by itself; they have amazing functionality because of the incredible information Internet around them.
What's interesting is that standards are really everything about this type of process: that's how you define the boundaries that allow different technologies to take hold, otherwise you simply could never design something of that complexity from the ground up. It may be that we're entering the age of standards.
The way I addressed these changes in the NIST reorganization is to have a structure that does not map into any specific sector. It has been 20 years since we've last touched our structure, and things are so dynamic now that I did not want the new structure in a framework that we would regret five or 10 or 20 years from now.
What is the feeling on Capitol Hill about the way the U.S.-based standards development system is structured and delivering standards and how it works in comparison and conjunction with the systems of other nations?
While I'm not a crystal ball on Capitol Hill, I have two observations.
There is a lot of interest in standards because there's a new understanding dawning that these are big issues with big consequences, and we need to make sure that the U.S. is in a good position to carry things out.
The other, which Chairman [Bart] Gordon [D-TN] made clear when opening a recent House subcommittee hearing, is that while no one is talking about - as far as I can hear - restructuring our approach to standards, we do have to focus on making our system work effectively. We live in a global economy; how do we make our approach even more optimum for the current times?