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At 30,000 Feet It Won’t Matter
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 May 2006 Plain Talk for a New Generation
James A. Thomas, President, ASTM International

Go to other Plain Talk for a New Generation articles.

At 30,000 Feet It Won’t Matter

One would think that the subject of what constitutes an international standard had long ago been exhausted on this page. Not so. Not as long as I find in my travels around the world that the question continues to arise and that, in some quarters, confusion still abounds.

There are two basic definitions of an international standard and there are strong opinions on both sides as to which one is “right.” These definitions are embodied by the systems of representation in the world’s major standards developing organizations — the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and ASTM International: 1) An international standard can only be developed by national delegations (ISO); and 2) an international standard is one that is developed by individuals and used internationally (ASTM International). If both organizations’ technical experts come from countries all around the world, if both organizations are committed to a code of good practice, if both subscribe to the conditions laid out by the World Trade Organization Technical Barriers to Trade Committee for developing international standards, if both organizations’ standards are used around the world, why is there a debate at all? The fact is, there shouldn’t be a debate.

The definition debate doesn’t concern itself with the integrity of the standards involved. It’s about representation, more specifically, what entities are represented in reaching an international consensus. One way to achieve international consensus is through the use of national viewpoints (ISO). Here technology is defined by national requirements. The other system makes use of organizational and individual viewpoints, where technology is a result of international marketplace conditions (ASTM International).

The fact is, the latter system also takes national requirements into account. It has to. But its consensus is not bound by national requirements. There is a difference. If standards developers address health and safety concerns with equanimity, if the development process is fair, open and representational and conforms to WTO principles, then the matter of national or non-national orientation is tangential. For the stakeholder and the user, which system results in the internationally accepted standard is, or should be, a matter of choice. This is the heart of the matter: should the acceptable system be pre-determined, or should it be a matter of choice?

ASTM International’s position is clear: what constitutes an international standard should be a matter of choice. And it should be about the content of the standard, not the system of representation. Every day, competitors in the marketplace — and governments — are realizing that a strategy that limits their choice of standards is not a good idea. Today, global traders are demanding the best standard, regardless of its source or who developed it. More and more governments are realizing that the best standard is the best competitive tool for their industries and the best way to ensure higher levels of health and safety for their citizens. Meanwhile, ASTM International is watching as global sales of ASTM standards increase, as more and more countries (60 and counting) are using ASTM standards as the bases for their technical regulations, as more and more international technical experts join the ASTM ranks, and as the din of the definitions debate recedes into the background.

If you are still confused about what an international standard is, the next time you take any airplane to any destination in the world, think about the fuel in the plane. At 30,000 feet, the definitions debate won’t mean very much. You’ll just feel a lot better knowing the fuel was made and tested to standards developed by ASTM International and chosen by international aviation authorities. Sit back and listen to the motors purr. That’s the sound of an international standard.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM

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