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May/June 2009
PlainTalk

The Road to Recovery

Standards Provide a Path from the Start

Nine days after signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, U.S. President Obama released his fiscal year 2010 budget request totaling some $3.6 trillion. The document issued on Feb. 26 contained many references to investments in science and technology. For example, the National Science Foundation is slated to receive $3 billion for research funding while $1.9 billion is earmarked to go to the U.S. Department of Energy for basic research into the physical sciences and improvements to DOE laboratories and scientific facilities. $400 million is the amount projected for the establishment of the Advanced Research Project Agency — Energy, which will support high-risk, high-payoff research into energy sources and energy efficiency. The National Institute of Standards and Technology would receive $610 million in funds. NIST will use its funding for laboratory research, competitive grants, research fellowships, and advanced research and measurement equipment and supplies, plus $20 million in funds to be transferred from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for standards-related research that supports the security and interoperability of electronic medical records, one of many areas in this budget with a potential impact on ASTM International activities. There is a budget process ahead, of course, and the figures will undoubtedly change, but it is almost certain that in the final version, investments in science and technology will be substantial.

This is a good thing. But let’s think this through. Research alone will not get us to recovery.

In the July/August 2008 SN, my “Plain Talk” column focused on standards and innovation. Following is an excerpt:

“Standardization and innovation are more closely linked because technology isn’t what it used to be, and for the first time in the long history of standardization, a place in R&D is, in some quarters, part of the process. This is different than it used to be, when R&D and standardization were thought of as consecutive activities.”

Standardization is part of the process.

In the weeks to come, there will be testimonies before congressional committees that will support the president’s proposed budget. Thousands of applications for grants and fellowships will be submitted to municipal, state and local government agencies. In the enthusiasm and hopefulness of the moment, universities, corporations, institutions and individuals will come forth, proposing exciting deliverables: products and processes that will improve infrastructure, new and innovative energy alternatives, a revival of competitiveness in this industry and that, increases in safety and health and, in tandem, the creation of jobs. This country may see more new ideas and brilliant concepts at one time than it has in a very long time.

And then the work will begin. Recovery will be a process replete with realism and the mechanics of implementation, for every good idea must eventually come to the ultimate question: How will it be transferred into the economy, made real and tangible, transformed into efficient production, cost savings, availability, safety, consumption and jobs? In the request for funds, it would be most prudent to answer the question up front because it will surely be asked.

The answer is standardization. Without it, where would we find the methodologies, the practical applications, the tests that add credibility and confidence to the research? Standardization is the language used by buyers and sellers, the guarantees of safety relied upon by governments, the indispensable step in the process of bringing the miracles of research to the hard realities of the marketplace. Research, no matter how exciting and successful in the laboratory, is still only the map to recovery. Standardization is the road.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International

Go to other Plain Talk articles.