National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST)

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In November after an article came out about in Chemical and Engineering News about the American Chemical Society Science Policy Fellows, I received an email with an invitation to visit the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder to give a talk.  It fit in beautifully with my itinerary, and I was very pleased to go learn more about this federal agency.

NIST has the distinction of being the only federal agency that is required by the Constitution.  My host was able to quote Article I, Section 8 that requires Congress “to Fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.”  Because this provision is really about sharing common units for trade, NIST is housed in the Department of Commerce.  I had known that NIST has the task of coordinating cybersecurity education and standards for the federal government, but I knew far less about how all the standards worked.  From our visit to LASP, my Beloved Husband and I also knew that NIST played a role in calibrating instruments for satellites, but that work is apparently carried out in the Maryland facility.  It was a pleasure to get a better understanding of some of the NIST work in the chemical sciences.

There were two projects in particular that I learned about that caught my attention.  One of the jobs of the fuels group is to measure and characterize fuels extremely exactly.  Often they will have to create new methods of measurement to get the types of data they need.  They were invaluable when NASA made the changeover from disposable rocket fuel tanks to tanks that could be recovered, refilled and reused.  NIST helped make sure that the fuels would not cause problems with the reuse technology.  NIST also works extensively with the aviation industry.  I admit I was a bit surprised that four different fuels that all passed the required specifications had very different energy contents.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be flying a long flight if I didn’t know there was enough energy in the fuel to get to my destination!

A bit of a side project sprang from the need to find bodies that are buried underground.  My BH, who has a wealth of random knowledge, immediately identified two of the characteristic chemicals from the decomposition of a body as putracene and cadaverene.  After a certain amount of time, dogs’ noses are not sensitive enough to detect the odor of those chemicals anymore, and the group was working on a portable sample collector that would allow a law enforcement agent to collect a bunch of samples and then get an idea of where to dig to find the body.

For my talk, I discussed the role of science in policy, and I came up with four different options.  Scientific societies often do some policy work, obviously my fellowship from the ACS is an option, but there are also hearings and briefings as well interacting with Congressional offices as a constituent.  In describing my own fellowship, I discussed a few of the bigger projects on which I’ve worked, and it was great fun to have my own photos of the Rio Grande and of the Waldo Canyon burn area to share.  Since it was a Colorado group, I knew that these topics would be of particular interest.  They were a very receptive audience, which translated to their laughing at my jokes, and I hope I will get other opportunities to do variations on this same talk.

Doing a talk on my fellowship was very different from a standard chemistry talk which always starts from what data I have on hand (or hope I might manage to squeak out before I actually give the talk.)  When I was struggling with the format, I decided to ask a group of my fellow Fellows what they thought was important.  The first suggestion was to do a “textile” talk, which involves lots of pictures, lots of stories, and very few words.  That turned out to be a brilliant plan since it was extremely visual, and I do love to tell stories.  The second suggestion was to explain how to do an effective meeting with a Congressional office.  That turned out to be another brilliant idea since the person in charge of multiple research groups sat down to chat with me afterwards about strategies for interacting with and educating Congressional staff.

At one point when I was chatting with my host, I had mentioned a story about the Congressional Research Service.  When the topic came up again, my host commented that he actually did some work for CRS.  I thought that was great, and knowing that there are several hundred folks who work for CRS, he hesitantly asked if I might know the particular analyst with whom he consults.  In one of those “It’s a small world,” moments, I indeed had worked with this particular analyst on at least two different projects, and I enjoyed having this insight into one of the ways in which CRS collects information.

NIST is not as flashy or fancy as some of the other federal agencies, but since they provide a rock solid scientific foundation for measurements, they are absolutely essential for national and international consistency.  That idea was driven home when I looked up to check the time.  The digital readout on the wall was accompanied by a sign saying, “NIST Colorado Atomic Clock Time,” which is the official time standard for the whole U.S.

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