- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

The National Institute of Standards and Technology takes the measure of things great and small in ways most of the American public would find difficult to detect.
This low-profile, nonregulatory federal agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce known colloquially as NIST, researches and sets standards of measurement for materials and procedures, many of which are literally life-or-death matters.
"Hardly anything you do in daily life is unaffected by what we do here," says agency spokesman Michael Newman. "But a lot is the second and third layer down."
Every time a person buys food, gets blood tested or receives a mammogram, some, if not all, of the machines and measurements involved in those activities have been tested against standards established by NIST.
NIST's reputation rests on the fact that it does not regulate, but instead provides the best tools possible so a vast realm of everyday human activities proceeds without a hitch. When it actually invents equipment or procedures, the benefits fall to the industry that cooperated in the effort, which, in turn, affects the consumer.
Call it the trickle-down effect, says Henry Oppermann, director of the agency's weights and measures program, showing a chart illustrating how this works. Working with similar international agencies, NIST sets standards which are then passed down to state laboratories and eventually to every consumer who uses the devices or products even so humble an item as a box of raisin bran.
A consumer can take for granted that the contents of every box of cereal weighs about the same, thanks to NIST, which has trained outside metrologists people who make measures or take measures in the field who check that the boxes' weights are consistent. Training takes place in a lab that resembles an ordinary high school science room except it has been built to withstand any possible environmental hazard that would disturb the interior and its instruments.

Another key word on the agency's main Gaithersburg campus is "calibrate" to mark for measuring purposes.
A problem under study by the Chemical Science & Technology Laboratory is identifying what materials work best to get a consistent measure of a particular amino acid in the bloodstream. High levels of that amino acid, called homocysteine, have been shown to indicate a person is liable to develop Alzheimer's disease.
The Ionizing Radiation Division, part of the Physics Laboratory, has calculated the total dose of radiation in titanium seeds used to treat prostate cancer the treatment method chosen recently by former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on behalf of the 15 manufacturers making 20 types of seeds. This way, clinics using the seeds can check to see that manufacturers get the dosages right.
But NIST doesn't only fuss over minuscule matters, as can be seen in a visit to the Building & Fire Research Laboratory where actual fires are set inside a windowless yellow brick building to research cause and effect and enable staff members to check their computer simulations. The agency also tests firefighters' gear to limit the dangers caused by poorly designed equipment. Manufacturers eventually act on results.
These are among the labs in one of NIST's four arms, which the agency identifies as "cooperative programs." The research done in them "advances the nation's technology infrastructure and is needed by U.S. industry to continually improve products and services," according to the agency's Web site. The other arms are NIST's Manufacturing Extension Partnership to assist small manufacturers; the Baldrige National Quality Program; and the Advanced Technology program that involves co-funding risky research and development projects with private sector firms, such as the validity of using pig organs for human transplant needs.
The range of activities encompasses matters as daunting as the invention of the so-called atomic fountain clock built in NIST's Boulder, Colo., facility and evaluating the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Due to its expertise in controlling environmental conditions, NIST also built the encasements for historic American documents, including the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, housed in the National Archives.
Recently, the agency's Ionizing Radiation Division, part of the Physics Laboratory, measured the degree of ionization radiation needed to safely penetrate and irradiate U.S. mail. This was done in record time, officials say. "We're pretty successful when trying to meet a new challenge," boasts Bert Coursey, the division's chief.
The only products the agency sells directly mainly to industrial laboratories are hundreds of so-called Standard Reference Materials (SRMs), listing, say, the specified constituents of human serum necessary for labs to evaluate the accuracy of clinical procedures. Other SRMs detail nutrients in food and the contents of Chesapeake Bay sludge as a measure of marine pollutants.
In spite of so many valuable, even urgent, avenues of inquiry, no air of crisis exists on the agency's sprawling 578-acre Gaithersburg campus where geese flock and deer roam. Security is tight, but according to many of its employees, the atmosphere is far different from the cutthroat world of hunkered-down bureaucratic Washington. Many among the 3,000 employes working here and at Boulder stay on the job for decades. Seventy percent of the scientific staff hold doctorates, including at least one Nobel Prize winner, all of whom could earn vastly more sums if they left government service for moneymaking organizations.
"This is a terrific place to work," volunteers Mr. Coursey. "People appreciate it when you do good work, but not necessarily fast work. Compared to academia, I think there is a remarkable lack of pettiness."
Corporate memory at the 101-year-old agency can reach back 50 years a helpful factor when it comes to building on past research endeavors.
NIST Director Arden Bememt, the former head of the nuclear engineering department at Purdue University, on the job for just two months, is one of the agency's newest employees. He sees a strong role for NIST in helping make the United States competitive in world trade, he notes while taking a visitor through a display of agency accomplishments in the lobby of the 11-story administration bulding.
What surprised him most on arrival, he says, was seeing the extent to which the agency is involved in homeland security work in cybersecurity and detection of biological and chemical agents and the breadth and degree of international cooperation across the board.
"One of the biggest challenges we have is to stay focused," Mr. Bememt says. "We have to be very particular about priorities."
A difficult task, given the wildly disparate nature of activities under his command, both practical and theoretical. Employees in one building search for new laws of quantum physics while in another they investigate the dynamics of a May 30, 1999, fire at 3146 Cherry Road in Northeast Washington. Their abilities range from exploring the outer reaches of nanotechnology to analyzing the exact amount of cholesterol in an egg.


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