Spotlight: National Institute of Standards and Technology

Which little-known federal agency has been home to four researchers who have won Nobel Prizes in physics (and one who received the Nobel Prize in chemistry)? The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) made the news again this month (October 9), when Boulder, Colo.–based NIST physicist David Wineland (with French colleague Serge Haroche) became the fourth NIST researcher to win the award for “ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.”

Founded in 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards, the agency was reorganized as NIST in 1988 and is now a non-regulatory agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Its mission is to “promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.”  Its six laboratory units conduct world-class research, often in close collaboration with industry, while its Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership—a nationwide network of local centers—and other external programs offer technical and business assistance to smaller manufacturers and aid in the early-stage development of innovative but high-risk technologies.

NIST’s approximately 2,900 scientists, engineers, technicians and support and administrative staff are based at two locations: a 578-acre headquarters campus in Gaithersburg, Md., and a 208-acre campus in Boulder, Colo. The agency opened two new high-profile facilities in 2012. Its 283,000-square-foot, $118.6 million Precision Measurement Lab (PML) at NIST Boulder, dedicated on April 13, is one of the world’s most advanced facilities for research at the frontiers of measurement science. It meets rigorous new standards for temperature and humidity control, air cleanliness, vibration stability and more, and was funded in part by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). On the Gaithersburg campus, NIST’s Net-Zero Residential Test Facility—a unique structure that looks and behaves like an actual house—was unveiled on September 12. Designed to demonstrate that a typical-looking suburban home for a family of four can generate as much energy as it uses, the two-story, four-bedroom, LEED-Platinum certified structure incorporates energy-efficient construction and appliances as well as energy-generating technologies such as solar water heating and solar photovoltaic systems. For the first year of its operation—as NIST researchers use computer software and mechanical controls to simulate the activities of a typical family and monitor how the house performs—no actual humans will be allowed to enter.

President Obama’s FY2013 budget request for NIST is $857 million, an increase of $106.2 million from its FY2012 enacted budget of $750.8 million. The agency also receives an estimated additional annual income of $62.7 million in service fees and $128.9 million from other agencies.

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