NIST research: Timing is everything
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Imagine not having GPS to find a new destination, locate your smart phone or help soldiers navigate the battlefield. If President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget is implemented, which calls for a significant cut to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the cutting-edge work NIST is responsible for – such as the GPS -- would be in great jeopardy.

The U.S. Senate recently voted to do the right thing by increasing funding for the agency while the House passed a bill that would cut funding for NIST. As chairman of the Commerce Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations subcommittee, my senator, Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyJuan Williams: Putin wins as GOP spins Five things to watch for in Trump-Putin summit GOP senators visited Moscow on July 4, warned Russia against meddling in 2018 election: report MORE (R-Ala.), can demonstrate tremendous leadership by supporting robust funding for the agency when the two congressional chambers iron out their differences in the respective bills. The current stopgap budgetary measure ends Dec. 8.

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As an experimental physicist at The University of Alabama, I’m in the business of making measurements, a core goal of NIST. The agency is a leader in precision measurement and setting standards. What I do is similar to the way you measure length by comparing it to standard markings on a tape measure. When I report my measurements to another scientist, I have to use common standards, so that they can make sense of and reproduce my results. NIST manages some of the world’s most specialized measurement facilities where advanced research is done on advanced fuel cells and nanoelectronics, among other materials.

You probably used GPS today, based entirely on precision timing, which relies on the synchronization of atomic clocks onboard satellites through a computer network.  GPS satellites contain clocks that contribute precise time data to the GPS signals. Keeping a precise time base for GPS is a crucial job for NIST scientists. The agency’s precision timing infrastructure underpins GPS technology, and therefore, virtually every activity involving transportation of any kind.

Moreover, our nation's military and defense infrastructure only works under the best precision timing system – all communication, guidance and navigation systems rely on precision timing. 

Additionally, many people do not know that precise timekeeping has become our nation's “silent infrastructure,” underpinning our daily lives as much as electricity and roads do. 

NIST's clock system precisely synchronizes time across the country: On the civilian side, the internet, the power grid, the transportation and navigation industries and modern financial transactions would cease to function without it.  If we do not support our nation's timing infrastructure, one-third of our economy would disappear and most of the other two-thirds would largely come to a halt. 

The health of the precision timing infrastructure also impacts Alabama: Tuscaloosa is home to Microsemi Corp.’s hydrogen maser research and development center, where the world's most widely installed active hydrogen maser atomic clocks are manufactured. A maser is a laser that uses light from the microwave part of the spectrum.

Much of what NIST does is not always well publicized and has led to the “graying” of key strategic areas. Many of the experts we rely on are nearing retirement with too few replacements being trained. At The University of Alabama, we are developing Ph.D. and master’s degree programs in precision timing to provide a pipeline of highly qualified students to fill these positions.

The agency’s work has also greatly impacted other federal agencies. NIST is currently working with MIT and the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center to create the first, practical neutron microscope, enabling resolution into the nanometer range. The microscope will be able to probe inside fuel cells, batteries, biological materials and other items. X-ray imaging used in some telescopes inspired the concept of the neutron microscope. As an example of its power, the new microscope could take a researcher 20 seconds to probe an object instead of 20 minutes.

Maintaining our nation’s global leadership in science and technology requires a long-term, financial commitment to stable funding. Sen. Shelby, again, I urge you to seize the upcoming opportunity to demonstrate great leadership by supporting sustained, robust funding for NIST. 

Patrick R. LeClair is professor and department chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Alabama.