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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 Summary The Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory (MSEL) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) works with industry, standards bodies, universities, and other government laboratories to improve the nation’s measurements and standards infrastructure for materials. Its work is aligned with the mission of NIST, which 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. The MSEL consists of 149 technical staff, including 5 NIST Fellows, and 184 guest researchers, with total funding of $44.8 million at the time of this review. The MSEL is organized in four divisions: Ceramics, Materials Reliability, Metallurgy, and Polymers. A panel of experts appointed by the National Research Council (NRC) assessed the four divisions. Panel members visited these divisions and reviewed their activities. As requested by the Director of NIST, the scope of the assessment included the following criteria: (1) the technical merit of the current laboratory programs relative to the current state of the art worldwide; (2) the adequacy of the laboratory facilities, equipment, and human resources, as they affect the quality of the laboratory technical programs; and (3) the degree to which the laboratory programs in measurement science and standards achieve their stated objectives and desired impact. In addition to these three criteria, the panel was asked by the Director of NIST to assess the projects within the laboratory conducted under the America COMPETES Act of 2007, which supports the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI).1 On the basis of its assessment of the MSEL conducted in March 2008, the NRC’s Panel on Materials Science and Engineering concluded that, for the selected portion of the MSEL programs reviewed, the staff, the projects, and many facilities are outstanding. The projects are clearly focused on the mission of MSEL. The facilities and equipment are rationally upgraded within budget constraints, with several facilities being unique; the funding provided through the America COMPETES Act of 2007 is being used effectively. Division chiefs and staff evinced high morale, attributable to several factors: clear definitions of expectations and of the processes for realizing them, strong support of the MSEL from NIST leadership and of NIST generally from the President and from the Congress (through the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act), and positive feedback from customers. Since the previous NRC assessment of the laboratory,2 the MSEL has won internal NIST competitions to fund promising projects, terminated projects of relatively low impact, hired a few new staff and some postdoctoral temporary staff through the highly competitive NRC-administered National Academies Research Associateship Program, and upgraded experimental capabilities. The result is an organization that is strong in staff, facilities, and focus. The relatively new MSEL program planning and evaluation process provides a framework for the MSEL to assess ongoing and new projects with regard to risk and impact. The inclusion of an assessment of risk and steps to mitigate it, along with a process to “authenticate” the need—that is, to identify and verify the need of customers—is noteworthy. 1 See Domestic Policy Council, Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2006, American Competitiveness Initiative, Washington, D.C. “America COMPETES Act” is the short title for the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007 (Public Law 110-69). 2 National Research Council, 2005, An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Measurement and Standards Laboratories: Fiscal Years 2004-2005, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 The MSEL technical staff is strong and productive as measured by publication in refereed journals, output of products (such as standard reference materials [SRMs] and standard reference databases [SRDs]), awards, and strong demand by customers (U.S. industry) for advanced measurement services and standards. Staff and managers participate in and are elected by their peers to lead major technical societies, which validates the quality of the staff and enhances the reputation and stature of NIST. Funding for various programs under the America COMPETES Act started in fiscal year (FY) 2007, so it is early to assess its impact. The projects receiving this funding are well conceived, and the first results are positive. The Ceramics Division, which is responsible for enhancing the NIST capability in the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, is effectively applying the funding to perform unique measurements that have already resulted in new discoveries. The enhanced research capability is significant enough that it should be managed in a way that brings broader participation from NIST in establishing priorities for the portion of beam time that NIST controls. The Metallurgy and the Materials Reliability Divisions share in executing a program to develop standards and test protocols related to the hydrogen economy—specifically, to the safety of pipelines to transport hydrogen under high pressure. A flexible research and test facility is under construction at the NIST facility in Boulder, Colorado, that holds promise of greatly enhancing the capability of NIST to study this complex problem. A related project to measure hydrogen content rapidly in order to assess materials compatibility is solid but small. The project to build the first broadband coherent anti-Stokes Raman scattering microscope is off to a good start in the Polymers Division. Issues and opportunities for improvement are cited in the division chapters. Issues that are common to varying degrees among the divisions include the following: a large fraction of the staff is retirement-eligible, and limited hiring resulting from constrained budgets may threaten capabilities; some equipment is antiquated and some facilities are in need of upgrade, notably in Boulder. Several projects beneficially incorporated modeling and simulation, but more is needed. In future NRC panel assessments, project presentations should briefly include the size, start date, and expected duration of a project as well as indicating linkages to other projects, if applicable, as an adjunct to the statement of partnerships and other evidence of authentication that was frequently provided. Providing data that compare MSEL capabilities with those of other laboratories would be helpful as well. Trend data for 5 years would help the panel in evaluating progress in projects and assessing the strength of programs.