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—for the private sector and government agencies, in everything from nutrition, to time and national security. The agency fuels US technological innovation and progress through research and development in four key areas of focus: biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology and advanced manufacturing.
NIST headquarters are in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with laboratories in Boulder, Colorado—the latter are best known for NIST-F1, one of the world's two most accurate atomic clocks, which serves as the source of the nation's official time.
After leading scientists and industrialists lobbied for the concept of a national standards laboratory at the turn of the century - primarily to meet the needs of electrical instrument makers and manufacturers - the US Congress chartered NIST, which was known until 1998 as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), in 1901. With a starting staff of 12, NBS was the federal government’s first physical science research laboratory. Originally located in the Treasury Department, the agency later moved to the Department of Commerce and Labor, and stayed with the Department of Commerce after it split from Labor.
The work of NBS/NIST was affected by - and exerted an influence on - national and international events, and the agency played an important role in early government testing, contributing to wartime and military technological developments. However, in1953 NBS defense programs were transferred to other laboratories in the Department of Defense, resulting in a loss of over one-third of the NBS staff and more than one-half of its budget - and leaving the agency devoted primarily to standards, civilian technology and science. (See Chemistry International article).
In over a hundred years of existence, NIST research has contributed to a wide variety of technological developments - such as image processing, DNA diagnostic “chips,” smoke detectors, atomic clocks, pollution control, etc. The agency became more involved with private-sector technological development, notably with the establishment of the Advanced Technology Program in 1988, aimed at forming a partnership with the private sector towards development of commercial technologies that would generate profit. The agency underwent a name change the same year, reflecting the increasing importance of “technology” in its mandate.
The agency has had two important university collaborations - the Joint Institute for Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), created in 1962 by a memorandum of understanding between NBS and the University of Colorado, and the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology (CARB) with the University of Maryland in 1984.
The agency has a detailed history page, including links to the following chapters:
, From NBS to NIST
, The Founding
, The Industrial Age
, The Roaring Twenties
, The Depression
, World War II
, Postwar Years
, The Space Age
, Energy and Environment
, New Directions, Promoting Economic Growth
Three NIST scientists have been awarded Nobel Prizes for their work in physics:
NIST/NBS and World War II
Within the Director’s Office, the Chief of Staff
administers the agency’s policies and external relations, planning, and program evaluation activities through the following divisions: Congressional and Legislative Affairs, Program Office (including the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology), Strategic Planning and Economic Analysis, and Public and Business Affairs Office. The Office of the Chief of Staff also includes the Office of the NIST Counsel, Office of International and Academic Affairs, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Facilities Management Officer
, and Chief Human Capital Officer
conduct research in a variety of physical and engineering sciences, responding to industry needs for measurement methods, tools, data, and technology.
Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology
provides measurement methods, instrumentation, and standards to support all phases of nanotechnology development, from discovery to production. The center consists of a Research Program and the Nanofab, a shared-use facility providing economical access to state-of-the-art nanofabrication and nanomeasurement tools.
More on Nanotechnology
Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory
conducts research in measurement science and develops the chemical, biochemical, and chemical engineering measurements, data, models, and reference standards that are required to enhance U.S. industrial competitiveness in the world market and to improve public health, safety, and environmental quality
Other NIST programs include: Baldrige National Quality Program
- The Baldrige Award is given by the President of the U.S. to businesses, education, health care and nonprofit organizations that apply and are judged for excellence in seven areas: leadership; strategic planning; customer and market focus; measurement, analysis, and knowledge management; human resource focus; process management; and results.
· Security Technology
: Works in cryptography, collaborates with federal and international agencies on interoperable security standards
· Systems and Network Security
: Security solutions for “critical information infrastructure,” research and development in areas such as smart card, wireless and mobile, and voice over Internet Protocol (IP) security, digital forensics, intrusion detection systems, vulnerability analysis, etc.
NIST manages the Personal Identity Verification Project
, an effort stemming from a homeland security-related presidential directive, which aims at centralizing and upgrading the federal agency ID system. An existing piecemeal system is to be replaced with “smart cards” that will ostensibly prevent potential terrorists from breaching federal security by making counterfeit, tampering or stolen identity more difficult. The new-generation ID cards are the same dimensions of a standard credit card, but digitally store biometric data (e.g., facial photographs, fingerprints), and cryptographic keys and algorithms used for providing digital signatures and other encryption. The cards will be required for all federal employees, including military, as well as others who require access to federally controlled facilities and computer systems.
Interoperability has been an impediment to the widespread implementation of smart-card technology. Most cards from different vendors rely on specific software and readers. NIST’s Information Technology Lab is working with industry and government to resolve interoperability issues.
As individual states are left to determine their own voting procedures and whether to employ paper or electronic apparatus’, the debate continues over the security and reliability of electronic voting systems. NIST has been working on standardization research and development for electronic voting.
NIST “Standard Bullet” Fights Gang Violence
- Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a copper bullet designed to help end criminal sprees without once being fired. Crime laboratories can use NIST's “Standard Bullet” to optimize the settings of computerized optical imaging instruments used to match markings on fired bullets from a suspected weapon. (ScienceDaily)
NIST and 9/11 Investigation
NIST conducted a 3-year building fire and safety investigation to study the factors contributing to the probable cause(s) of post-impact collapse of the WTC Towers (1 and 2, as well as Tower 47, which subsequently collapsed). NIST concluded 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 9/11, several conspiracy-theory books have been published, often addressing the issue of why the buildings collapsed—putting NIST and its investigation at the center of controversy. Many claim that NIST’s explanation for the rapid collapse is “physically impossible” without additional external forces. For example, the authors of 9/11 Revealed (by British authors Ian Henshall and Rowland Morgan, published in 2005), allege that the buildings were intentionally demolished—rigged with explosives. The U.S. government maintains that exhaustive investigations, including the one performed by NIST, have proven the official story and vehemently refutes any alternative hypotheses.
Blogs such as this one attempt to discredit the NIST report:
NIST also posted a fact sheet
addressing alternative theories of the cause of fires and collapse.
NIST-approved random numbers have raised concerns among industry experts who allege the existence of an in-built “back door” for the federal government.
“Random numbers are critical for cryptography: for encryption keys, random authentication challenges, initialization vectors, nonces, key-agreement schemes, generating prime numbers and so on. Break the random-number generator, and most of the time you break the entire security system. Which is why you should worry about a new random-number standard that includes an algorithm that is slow, badly designed and just might contain a backdoor for the National Security Agency…”
Also see the following on cryptography politics:
Atomic Rulers of the World
(by Brian Alexander, Wired)
Arati Prabhakar—appointed tenth director of NIST in 1993, was the first woman to earn a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology and the agency’s youngest director.
Annual Budget: $931.5 million (FY 2008)
Employees: About 2,800 scientists, engineers, technicians, and support and administrative personnel at two main locations in Gaithersburg, MD and Boulder, CO
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Previous Acting Director