The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a non-regulatory federal agency within the Department of Commerce, charged with advancing measurement science, standards, and technology. The agency conducts research and development in four key areas: biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, and advanced manufacturing. The NIST is headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and runs its laboratories in Boulder, Colorado. The laboratory also runs NIST-F1, one of the world's two atomic clocks, which serves as the source of the nation's official time. The current NIST Director and Commerce Under Secretary for Standards and Technology is Patrick Gallagher.
The earliest precursor to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), which was created by Congress in 1901 at the lobbying of leading scientists who pushed for authoritative national standards for quantities and products. Although the Office of Standard Weights and Measures had already been in existence since 1830, it did not adequately meet the needs of electrical instrument makers and manufacturers, and was merged with the newly formed agency.
The NBS was initially an agency in the Treasury Department, but was soon placed in the Commerce and Labor Department in 1903, which became simply the Commerce Department in 1913. At its start, the NBS had only 12 staff members and the office served as the federal government’s first physical science research laboratory which worked to improve the standards for electrical measurement, length, mass, temperature, light, and time. The office also prepared and maintained hundreds of standard samples of materials that helped introduce quality control to U.S. industry.
The agency played an important role in early government testing, contributing to wartime and military technological developments. However, in 1953, its defense programs were transferred to other laboratories in the Department of Defense, resulting in a loss of over one-third of the staff and more than one-half of its budget. This left the agency devoted primarily to standards, civilian technology and science. In 1960, the agency created NBS II, a clock that kept more accurate time than it’s prior 1949 atomic clock. The NBS II was based the natural frequency of the cesium atom, and became the national standard of frequency, supplanting a set of quartz crystal oscillators. The clock has been upgraded several times since then and now has an accuracy of one second in nearly 20 million years. Two important university collaborations also shaped the agency. The Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) was created in 1962 by a memorandum of understanding between NBS and the University of Colorado, and the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology (CARB), which was founded with the University of Maryland in 1984.
In 1988, the agency changed its name to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as part of the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act, which added the Advanced Technology Program that encouraged private investment in innovative and profitable technologies and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership that would aid small U.S. manufacturers. The Advanced Technology Program was closed in 2007.
Since it was founded, NIST research has contributed to a wide variety of technological developments including image processing, DNA diagnostic chips, smoke detectors, and pollution control. NIST scientists have also been awarded three Nobel Prizes for their work in physics: Jan Hall Shares in 2005, Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman in 2001, and William Phillips in 1997.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) promotes innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology, which aid everything from automated teller machines, to mammograms, and semiconductors. NIST Laboratories conduct research needed by U.S. industry to continually improve products and services. There are six laboratories that are devoted to specific research areas:
Engineering Laboratory: Conducts measurement science research, performance metrics, tools and methodologies for engineering applications, and critical technical contributions to standards and codes development.
Physical Measurement Laboratory: Develops the national standards of length, mass, force and shock, acceleration, time and frequency, electricity, temperature, humidity, pressure and vacuum, liquid and gas flow, and electromagnetic, optical, microwave, acoustic, ultrasonic, and ionizing radiation.
Information Technology Laboratory: Develops standards, measurements, and testing for interoperability, security, usability, and reliability of information systems, including cybersecurity standards and guidelines for federal agencies and U.S. industry.
Material Measurement Laboratory: Develops research, standards, and data in the chemical, biological, and materials sciences.
Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology: Supports the U.S. nanotechnology enterprise from discovery to production by providing access to world-class nanoscale measurement and fabrication methods and technology. The CNST is the only national nanocenter with a focus on commerce.
Center for Neutron Research: Provides neutron measurement capabilities to the U.S. research community.
The agency also runs five major programs:
Smart Grid: Aids in the development of interoperable standards that will make to make the Smart Grid possible.
Baldrige Performance Excellence Program: Aids and outreaches to U.S. manufacturers, service companies, educational institutions, health care providers, and nonprofit organizations and runs the annual Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award which recognizes performance excellence and quality achievement.
Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership: A nationwide network of local centers offering technical and business assistance to smaller manufacturers.
Technology Innovation Program: Provides cost-shared awards to industry, universities, and consortia for research on potentially revolutionary technologies that address critical national and societal needs.
Law Enforcement Standards Office: Aids criminal justice, public safety, emergency responder, and homeland security agencies make informed procurement, deployment, applications, operating, and training decisions, by developing performance standards, measurement tools, operating procedures, and equipment guidelines.
From the Web Site of the National Institute of Standards and Technology
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) funding and aid helps many industries including those involved in science, technology, military, and intelligence. NIST grants also aid a number of colleges and universities. From 2002-2012, the agency spent more than $2.3 billion on contracting, according to a query of USAspending.gov.
Top contractor recipients, and their percentage of all contracting include:
1. The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company $91,958,694 (4%)
2. Pepco Holdings, Inc. $72,498,598 (3%)
3. KT Consulting, Inc. $68,120,236 (3%)
4. WGL Holdings, Inc. $55,783,123 (2%)
5. Northern Taiga Ventures, Inc. $49,736,839 (2%)
From 2002-2012, the agency also gave away more than $2.9 billion in grants, according to USAspending.gov.
Top recipients include:
1. California Manufacturing Technology Consulting $74,714,193 (3%)
2. University of Maryland $74,446,907 (3%)
3. University of Maryland College Park $70,433,134 (2%)
4. University of Colorado Boulder $69,609,340 (2%)
5. Board of Trustees of University of Alabama $60,000,000 (2%)
NIST and 9/11 Investigation
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted a three-year building fire and safety investigation to study factors contributing to the probable causes of the post-impact collapse of the World Trade Center towers in the September 11 terrorist attack. It concluded that the towers collapsed due to the impact of the plane crashes, which severed and damaged support columns and dislodged fireproofing insulation, allowing the fires to weaken the floors and support columns until they buckled. In the wake of the attacks, several conspiracy-theory books have been published that have claimed that NIST’s explanation for the rapid collapse is physically impossible without additional external forces. Ian Henshall and Rowland Morgan, the authors of the book 9/11 Revealed, allege that the buildings were intentionally demolished and rigged with explosives. The U.S. government maintains that exhaustive investigations, including the one performed by NIST, have explained the damage and vehemently refutes any alternative hypotheses.
NIST and the World Trade Center (NIST explanation)
Debunking the 9/11 Myths: Special Report (Popular Mechanics)
NIST Employees Use Taxpayer-funded Email Lobbying
In 1995, Washington Technology magazine found that several federal agencies were using taxpayer-financed email and Internet accounts to defend government technology subsidy programs from budget cuts advocated by the Republican Congress. The most prominent cyber lobbyists came from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Energy Department and, most recently, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. According to observers, the content, tone and method of delivery of the messages are unprecedented. And they could stray close to violating laws that prevent the use of appropriated agency funds for lobbying Congress.
NIST’s Role in Controversial Cryptography Science
In 2007, the NIST released a new official standard for random-number generators that are critical for cryptography and Internet encryption keys. The new standard is based on existing standards including one called Dual_EC_DRBG, which one critic has said is slower than its peers, badly designed, and could contain a backdoor for spying by the National Security Agency. In 1995, the NIST also introduced a proposal to relax restrictions on the export of cryptographic software. The agency would allow Americans to add cryptographic locks on electronic data, provided that the keys be made available to law enforcement agencies if needed. The proposal was met with divisive debate over the degree to which businesses and individuals have the right to keep secrets when using telephones, computers and other forms of electronic communications.
The Strange Story of Dual_EC_DRBG (by Bruce Schneier)
Privacy for computers? Clinton sets the stage for a debate on data encryption (by Peter H. Lewis, New York Times)
Electronic Voting Concerns
In 2002, the NIST was tasked with overseeing the standards development and certification processes of direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines as part of the Help America Vote Act. Since then, many have questioned the security and reliability of DREs as they have not faced full scientific scrutiny because they are proprietary machines and manufacturers require confidentiality agreements of those who wish to acquire them. Although testing by NIST and other agencies are done as part of federal and state certification processes, detailed results are not publicly available.
The Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machine (DRE) Controversy: FAQs and Misperceptions (by Eric A. Fischer and Kevin J. Coleman, Congressional Research Service) (pdf)
E-voting faces a test at the polls: NIST works on standards as debate continues over systems’ reliability (by Wilson P. Dizard III, Government Computer News)
Patrick D. Gallagher, 2008-2009 (as Deputy Director)
James M. Turner, 2007-2008 (as Deputy Director)
William A. Jeffrey, 2005-2007
Hratch Semerjian, 2004-2005 (Acting Director)
Arden L. Bement Jr., 2001-2004
Karen Brown, 2000-2001 (Acting Director)
Ray Kammer, 1997-2000
Arati Prabhakar, 1993-1997
John W. Lyons, 1990-1993
Ernest Ambler, 1975-1989
Richard W. Roberts, 1973-1975
Lewis M. Branscomb, 1969-1972
Allen V. Astin, 1951-1969
Edward U. Condon, 1945-1951
Lyman J. Briggs, 1932-1945
George K. Burgess, 1923-1932
Samuel W. Stratton, 1901-1922
Patrick M. Gallagher has spent virtually his entire career at the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is best known for setting America’s clock by providing the nation’s standard time service. Gallagher has been the de facto head of NIST since the last year of the Bush administration while serving as deputy director, but was officially sworn in as director on November 20, 2009.
Patrick D. Gallagher (WhoRunsGov)
Dr. James M. Turner became the agency’s Acting Director on September 3, 2007. A native of Washington, D.C., Turner received his B.A. and PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins and M.I.T., respectively. He taught for five years as an Associate Professor of Physics and Engineering at Morehouse College.