"NIST is not a household word," said Bement, who in December became the agency's only political appointee. "I would venture to say that many chairmen of large corporations that even have heard of NIST are not clear how it can help them. I'm out to change that," Bement told National Journal.
As a nonregulatory agency of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration, NIST develops and promotes measurements, standards, and technology aimed at enhancing productivity, facilitating trade, and improving the quality of life. It has an annual budget of more than $800 million.
Created by Congress in 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards, NIST has played a significant role in the development and standardization of an impressive list of household and industry items, including semiconductors, police body armor, air conditioning and refrigeration systems, food labels, dental equipment, smoke detectors, and buildings and bridges.
NIST also helped to develop the atomic bomb, satellite communications, and the computer. NIST laser reflectors left on the moon by Apollo missions have made it possible to determine the distance between the Earth and the moon to better than an inch. The agency helped launch the optical glass and synthetic rubber industries, and it is working on environmental and health technologies.
The agency's headquarters is a bucolic 587-acre campus in Gaithersburg, Md., that is buffered from civilization by a stretch of land populated by deer and geese. In the 1960s, the agency was moved from downtown Washington to the Maryland site to escape urban vibrations that were interfering with testing. But now, suburban growth has caught up with NIST, and it is going partly underground to build the most advanced measurement laboratory in the world.
With a second facility in Boulder, Colo., NIST's total staff numbers more than 3,000, about three-quarters of whom have Ph.Ds. NIST has international exchange programs and students in post-doctoral fellowship programs, from which the institute draws much of its staff. Many researchers spend their careers there; some even continue to come to the labs after retirement. "We have alumni keeping standards and ethics very high," Bement said.
Bement came to NIST in December (though he was first approached by the Administration in August) from Purdue University, where he joined the faculty in 1992 after a 39-year career in industry, government, and academia. Previously, he was a vice president at TRW Inc., deputy undersecretary of Defense for research and engineering during the Carter Administration, the director of the Office of Materials Science at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bement, who will turn 70 in May, said of his new job, "I felt this would be a good capstone for my career." But he has chosen a tough challenge for his final act. The Bush administration has recognized the value that NIST can bring to the homeland security effort, and the agency's traditional research programs may see their budgets siphoned off to meet other priorities. The Bush budget proposal for fiscal 2003 would cut federal funding for all but two of the 400 centers in NIST's Manufacturing Extension Program, which helps small businesses start up.
Also, the Advanced Technology Program, a favorite source of R&D funding for the high-tech industry, would be refocused to reduce the risk for venture capitalists. Large companies would be restricted to participating through joint ventures with smaller firms.
Bement has vowed to seek additional funding for NIST. His strategy for raising awareness of the agency is to communicate directly with decision makers in government, academia, and industry. Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans in January called NIST a "national treasure."
NIST provides technical assistance to other agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency. It is now authorized to work on biometric standards for visa control, and to carry out a technical study of the World Trade Center collapse. The agency is also developing standards for mail irradiation, airport security detectors, and technology for detecting biological-chemical agents or nuclear materials.
Bement said NIST is actively pursuing the "next big thing," quantum communications and quantum computing. These technologies allow communication of more information farther and faster, as well as the computation of much more data on smaller computers.
Nanotechnology--materials and devices assembled at the atomic and molecular levels--also is being developed to measure pieces of molecules, he said. Other remarkable research includes health care advances such as measuring a strand of DNA to better understand the interaction between human tissue and materials used to repair it.
Yet NIST may be destined to work in partial obscurity while the world enjoys the fruits of its labor. "I think we're thinking a little broader, trying to align our projects to national needs without moving away from our traditional constituencies," Bement said. "[But] I think we'll always be a supporting agency."