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The National Institute of Standards and Technology: 100 Years

NIST & ASTM Share a Century of Innovation

by James A. Thomas

The following is taken from a speech ASTM President James A. Thomas delivered at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Centennial Symposium, Standards in the Global Economy: Past, Present, and Future, in Gaithersburg, Md., on March 7.

This year we celebrate a momentous occasion—the centennial anniversary of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. I have been asked to speak about the standards partnership that exists between NIST and ASTM and how that partnership has produced standards for the public benefit. Without doubt, this is a fact. But the history we share has much more to teach us than the fact that we have been able to produce standards together. Governments and private citizens produce standards together all over the world. It is, rather, how we did it that is of note. The partnership we are celebrating today is a microcosm, a snapshot of this country’s history. It is the story of what set us apart from the rest of the world, the story of how a government and its citizens came to share a common purpose and achieve a common goal in an atmosphere of equanimity and balance.

This partnership is a model for governments and private institutions everywhere, a model in which we can take pride, one that has proven, time and again, what great strides in progress can be made when public and private institutions are willing to abandon traditional roles and old ideas. Our partnership has refuted the idea that public and private institutions are destined to be defined by authority and mutual mistrust.

A Century Ago

At the turn of the last century, when ASTM and NIST came on to the American scene, we were a nation on the move. Literally. We were building the great railroads. Steel producers worked night and day to fill the ever-increasing demands of the burgeoning railroad system, making the United States the most prolific steel producer in the world. In the midst of this unprecedented boom, we hit a wall: train derailments. Broken rails, broken wheels, and broken flanges and axles began to take a terrible toll on American lives and the American economy. Desperate railroad companies began to import their rails from Great Britain.

In 1898, 70 members of a new association, the American Chapter of the International Association for Testing Materials, met in Philadelphia to discuss the prospects of organizing committees of companies and customers to develop testing methods for iron, steel, and other materials. Three years later, the U.S. Congress chartered the first physical science laboratory of the federal government, the National Bureau of Standards. By 1912, NBS was performing materials research on the iron and steel constituents of the railroad industry, research that advanced and enhanced the specifications that had been developed by the steel companies and the railroad companies in what was now ASTM. American railroads began to be reliable and safe again; and a unique partnership had been forged. Almost 100 years later, this partnership is stronger than ever.

The Partnership

When we consulted ASTM’s membership roster last week, we counted 194 NIST scientists among its ranks. NIST’s Annual Report to OMB reported that in the period October 1998 to September 1999, NIST scientists held 572 ASTM committee memberships, an astonishing number that far surpassed any like number related to any other private standards developing organization. At a time when there is a general government agency decline in participation in standards activities, these statistics represent the commitment of NIST to our partnership, and to the work of producing standards for public benefit.

While this number is important, we can only use it to measure units of activity. There is no method yet devised, however, whereby we can measure the talent and dedication NIST scientists bring to the work of ASTM. To our NIST technical partners therefore, I can only extend my deepest gratitude and thanks.

It was during Dr. Louis M. Branscomb’s term as NIST director, in the 1970s, that NBS made some very important decisions, decisions that more clearly articulated the relationship between us, decisions that brought all of us into a more enlightened age. It was during this time that NBS shifted many of its voluntary standards program activities to private sector organizations, opting not to compete, but to supplement private sector programs. It was also during the ’70s that NBS decided to become more active in voluntary standardization activities at the policy level, a decision ASTM welcomed wholeheartedly. Soon thereafter, NBS was represented on ASTM’s Board of Directors. Some of you will remember names like John Hoffman, Karl Willenbrock, Emmanuel Horowitz, and Bill Andrus, all distinguished NIST scientists and administrators, all ASTM Board members. Dr. Branscomb’s foresight changed both our institutions and deepened our relationship in a very meaningful way.

The immediate past director of NIST, Raymond Kammer, is also a former member of the ASTM Board of Directors. His service, not only to ASTM, but to our entire community, came at a time when standards development was coming to be recognized by policy makers and industrial leaders as a critical element in the globalization of industry and international trade. We had no national standards strategy to help us cope with our changing world. At an American National Standards Institute board meeting, Ray challenged us to develop one. Ray’s instincts, insights, and guidance have been invaluable to ASTM, and his involvement with the voluntary standards system in this country is very deeply appreciated.

In 1993, during my first full year as president of ASTM, I had the pleasure of partnering with a NIST scientist named Nancy Trahey. At that time, she was chairman of the ASTM Board, and the second woman in ASTM’s history ever to be elected to the chair. She was an outstanding chair and remains a great friend. ASTM was the clear beneficiary of her steady, skilful leadership.

NIST members have brought to our process everything from measurement infrastructures and basic research to “the management of the battlefields for economic competitiveness,” to quote Ray Kammer. Dr. Belinda Collins, whose hard work and dedication I wish also to acknowledge, has been a partner who has shouldered some of the heaviest burdens and most difficult challenges of our day, not the least of which was the development of the National Standards Strategy.

Time will not permit me to describe the range and depth of our partnership, which goes far beyond the development of standards, but I will mention three outstanding collaborative efforts:
w Our Cement and Concrete Reference Laboratory partnership, started in 1929, a Research Associate Program in which the manager is an AASHTO/ASTM em-ployee and the rest of the staff is employed by ASTM.

• Our Standard Reference Materials partnership, another Research Associate Program begun in 1976 to provide standard reference materials for the nation’s metals industry. It now includes glass and fine particle metrology and is managed by our past Chairman of the Board Nancy Trahey.
• Our grants and contracts program that has served to accelerate standards development and the transfer of technology to the marketplace through the resulting standards.

These collaborations are all success stories whose implications and effects have been felt worldwide.

NIST and ASTM have shared in the outreach to developing countries, co-hosting delegations from around the world. ASTM’s Washington representative, Helen Delaney, became the NIST standards attaché to the U.S. Mission to the European Union. ASTM has appeared before Congressional committees and testified time and again in support of funding for NIST—an act of partnership we will repeat whenever given the opportunity. Together we have supported the implementation of the OMB Circular A-119 and the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, instruments that have brought us closer together, that have enhanced and strengthened our partnership.

Accomplishing Our Mission—Good Standards

No other country in the world, even the most democratized, has a standards infrastructure that is built on our concept of government/private sector partnership. Our system has often made it difficult for us to fit into a world where standards systems are characterized more by legislative or authoritative involvement than by an equal partnership where government is part of the process. However, one has only to look around to see what this partnership for the public benefit has produced: standards that have seen us successfully through two world wars, that have restored and sustained our environment, that reflect unhampered invention and innovation, and that make our products household names around the globe—standards of inimitable quality and relevance. Our standards are the measurement of unprecedented prosperity, levels of health and safety, and a quality of life that is unparalleled anywhere. Our standards are the irrefutable result of our way of life, and our partnership.

And so, on this important day, at the dawn of your second century, I bring you ASTM’s best wishes. When our railroads needed us, we were there. We set our sights on their survival and success; and the public benefited. Our country benefited. The goal we set out to achieve 100 years ago—to promulgate valid and accurate standards, standards that would promote trade, increase the quality of life for our citizens, and measure the best of who we are as a nation—is as valid and viable as it was then. May it continue as the basis of our partnership for the next 100 years.

Happy anniversary. //

Copyright 2001, ASTM

James A. Thomas is the president of ASTM. Thomas serves on the board of directors of the American National Standards Institute. He is a member of the Standards Engineering Society, the Council for Engineering and Scientific Society Executives, and the Industry Functional Advisory Committee on Standards for Trade Policy Matters.