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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 Summary A panel of experts appointed by the National Research Council (NRC)—the Panel on Building and Fire Research—has assessed the scientific and technical work of the Building and Fire Research Laboratory (BFRL) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The panel visited the laboratory and reviewed its activities. As requested by the Director of NIST and described further in the next chapter on the charge to the panel and its assessment process, 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 BFRL conducted under the America COMPETES Act of 2007, which supports the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI).1 That work focuses on disaster-resilient structures and communities, including efforts related to hurricanes, wildland fires, and earthquakes (including community-scale loss estimation). Following is a brief summary of the panel’s conclusions, based on its assessment using these criteria. TECHNICAL MERIT RELATIVE TO STATE OF THE ART Overall the technical merit of the programs reviewed within the BFRL is very high and generally at a state-of-the-art level. The programs have clear ties to the overall BFRL Strategic Priority Areas and are well 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. Technical quality is demonstrated by the acceptance of submissions to high-impact publications and the adoption of technical results and findings in codes and standards. The publications that document results from the laboratory receive extensive internal review before their submission for publication. With few exceptions, the BFRL staff who were reviewed by the panel are fully aware of work being done elsewhere and have exceptional links with the external community, demonstrated by membership and active participation in professional and trade committees and on codes and standards development bodies. There is good balance in BFRL work between anticipatory, longer-term research and activities that respond to the immediate needs of customers. ADEQUACY OF INFRASTRUCTURE The equipment and facilities supporting current BFRL work are excellent and, except for specifically noted cases (the large-scale structural fire test facility and 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).
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 construction productivity metrics work space), do not appear to be a limiting factor. For virtually all of the research reviewed there is either adequate laboratory equipment and very impressive laboratory facilities or current planning to make appropriate additions to the current facilities. The updating and modernizing of NIST-related test equipment and procedures must continuously be considered. In the area of structural engineering (disaster-resilient structures and communities), the BFRL has moved away from experimentation and is outsourcing some experiments. For outsourcing, planning should be put in place to establish requirements for the adequate control and oversight of the quality of experimental measurements. The BFRL staff has a critical mass of scientific and technical competencies and is well qualified to conduct the programs underway. However, it is short-staffed in several areas if it is to achieve the full potential of current and planned future efforts. There are serious concerns relative to the attracting, recruiting, training, and retaining of staff for future needs. A plan needs to be developed to address present and future staffing needs, mentoring and staff development, retention strategies, technical and project management training, and the provision of the human resources (HR) support necessary to implement the plan without unduly taxing the time of scientific personnel. While recruiting specific qualified individuals will require contacts from scientific personnel, HR can support regular recruitment activities at national meetings of relevant societies and learn the processes of other industries (e.g., the more widespread use of recruiters). Also, help is needed from HR, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Congress in opening opportunities to noncitizens (such as permanent residents). There has been a significant change in personnel over the past 3 years, in particular in technical leadership positions within the BFRL. It is not clear that there have been systematic development opportunities to prepare individuals for this transition. The backgrounds of the staff at the BFRL are highly technical, and training in technical program management principles may be warranted. Available funding, at least prospectively, appears adequate for success in most current areas of work if the funding materializes. The laboratory’s base funding from Congress provides a foundation for sustaining programs comparable to the funding for most federally sponsored research institutions. Base funding has grown modestly every year since fiscal year (FY) 2002, and based on the American Competitiveness Initiative, the America COMPETES Act, and planned administration requests, there appears to be a very positive prospect of doubling base funding over 10 years. Some areas in which the BFRL is already involved could be more effectively addressed, given additional funding. For example, national economic opportunities and global environmental threats justify considerably more funding on energy-related work. ACHIEVEMENT OF OBJECTIVES AND IMPACT The BFRL has a strong foundation and record of excellent results in achieving program objectives and disseminating research results and findings. BFRL researchers are active participants in major professional and trade organizations and on standards and code-setting committees, with demonstrated success in moving research results to standards and codes. Product dissemination is accomplished through numerous channels, including professional publications and conferences, industry materials such as training
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 manuals, and Web sites. The panel was presented with a clear articulation of the mission and of the strategic directions for the BFRL. However, this strategic vision is not always complemented by detailed roadmaps and associated metrics that can be used to evaluate progress. At the present time, it appears that the achievement of stated objectives is mainly assessed by monitoring program progress against program-developed milestones. This process may be effective on a project-by-project basis but may be insufficient as an effective methodology for assessing a group of projects that have interdependent objectives related to larger strategic goals for the BFRL. The BFRL should consider adopting more formal project management techniques that are commonly used in industry. PROGRAMS FUNDED UNDER THE AMERICA COMPETES ACT The BFRL sees Disaster Resilient Structures and Communities (Hurricanes and Earthquakes) as a key focus area for addressing the objectives of the ACI and the America COMPETES Act. In FY 2008, the funding levels in the BFRL were not increased as had been anticipated. As a result, the programs in this area have suffered from lack of adequate support. These programs are only now taking shape. NIST assumed leadership of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) in 2005; however, the effort appears to be early in its development stages within NIST. The program has strong leadership and good overall perspective on direction and objectives. In terms of progress on earthquake-related issues within NIST, there has been limited technical progress. Staffing and integration with other BFRL projects (multi-hazard projects) still need to be addressed. Care should be taken that the role of the overall management responsibility for NEHRP does not interfere with the NIST technical programs associated with earthquake engineering. The extent of damage from wildland-urban interface (WUI) fires has grown as a result of increased construction at the interface, which in turn has been aggravated where weather is hotter and drier. The BFRL is uniquely qualified to address the many facets of the WUI fires, drawing on the laboratory’s competencies in characterizing and modeling fire spread in buildings, its large-scale fire facilities, its extensive connections in the fire community internationally, and its expertise in deriving lessons from fire investigations. The skills demonstrated in the investigations of the World Trade Center (WTC) building collapse and the Warwick, Rhode Island, Station nightclub fire make the engagement with the WUI situation timely and potent. The panel’s recommendations relative to the WUI fire research in support of the ACI are twofold. The first is to prepare technology roadmaps that clearly indicate the use of additional funding for the BFRL and state with precision and rigor what milestones are being targeted and what stakeholders will be affected. The BFRL should fully embrace technical portfolio management tools and processes that are routinely employed in industry, including processes for project management (e.g., the Stage-Gate product innovation process) and elements of the Design for Six Sigma paradigm (a method for eliminating defects in processes) to quantify the necessary robustness of the research results in order to ensure their transition to industrial practice. Secondly, the BFRL should also move aggressively beyond the characterization of components to the full
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An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Laboratory: Fiscal Year 2008 consideration of systems, particularly as characterized by the very successful past work for the WTC and what is clearly emerging for the WUI area. The focus on systems is critical to the science of measurement and U.S. competitiveness. The BFRL should employ new technologies from systems engineering and dynamical systems and should make full use of advances in information technology. The remaining chapters of this report contain a more detailed description of the charge to the panel and its assessment process and present detailed assessment findings within each of five Strategic Priority Areas that organize the research programs within the BFRL into core competency areas aligned with high-level BFRL goals. The five Strategic Priority Areas are (1) Measurement Science for Building Energy Technologies, (2) Measurement Science for Breakthrough Improvements in Construction Productivity, (3) Measurement Science for Predicting Life Cycle Performance of Nanocomposite Infrastructure Materials, (4) Disaster Resilient Structures and Communities (Hurricanes and Earthquakes), and (5) Disaster Resilient Structures and Communities (Fires). A separate chapter on “Programs Funded Under the America COMPETES Act” is included to examine and review the progress of all of the FY 2007-funded initiatives relevant to the BFRL and to comment on these program growth areas explicitly in this report. The report concludes with a chapter presenting the overall conclusions of the panel.