NIST brings about harmony, structure

If you can’t measure it, it’s not real. While this axiom may not apply to affairs of the heart, it is certainly true in science and technology. Until we have a way to measure an item against a known standard, all we can do is take it on faith. Why is an inch an inch, a gallon a gallon, or a minute a minute? Because we have standards for what each of those terms mean. Once there are standards, we can rely on their consistency to build buildings that don’t fall down, bus schedules we all understand, and all of the other systems that form the foundation of our lives.

Standards matter, and not just to scientists and policymakers. In the early 1900s, a fire in Baltimore largely destroyed the city. Why? Because when the fire companies from neighboring communities showed up, none of their hoses would fit Baltimore’s fire hydrants. There was no uniform standard. Now there is, and we can feel safe in knowing that we will never lose more lives or homes because fire hydrants and fire hoses are mismatched.

Technical standards remain equally important to all the major policy issues of today. Standards are what will let your doctor send your computerized medical record to another hospital if you are in an accident far from home. Electronic medical records and other forms of health information technology are an essential piece of comprehensive healthcare reform.

Health IT has the potential to not only bring greater efficiency and cost savings to healthcare, but also to improve both the patient experience and the practice environment for healthcare providers. Most importantly, the use of electronic medical records can save lives by reducing the medical errors that cause an estimated 98,000 annual American deaths.

Standards will let us create a functional, interoperable IT network, where health information can easily be shared between the relevant medical professionals. Doctors, hospitals and pharmacies will be reluctant to invest until they can be certain that they will not be procuring systems that will become the Betamax of the healthcare industry. Once the federal government and stakeholders have agreed to standards that are accepted by leaders in the health IT community, medical facilities will feel more confident about investing in these systems.

Standards are also what will someday let you set appliances like your dishwasher or laundry machine to run when the smart grid recognizes that overall power usage is lowest. By embedding communication tools in the power grid, we will be able to more efficiently distribute power and improve our overall energy efficiency. These smart-grid technologies are an essential part of comprehensive energy reform and combating climate change.

For example, we produce a lot of wind power in the Pacific Northwest. Smart-grid technology will someday notify the system when the wind stops blowing so that it can automatically fire up a biomass plant to provide supplemental power to the grid. But first we need standards for the network protocols and the “language” that will be used by the equipment s.

In the federal government, these and many other standards are under development by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST is the federal agency that is responsible for creating standards and promoting technology. As chairman of the Science Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, NIST is one of the federal agencies that I oversee. The many talented scientists at NIST are working hard on the standards that will underpin fundamental portions of heathcare and energy reform. Their largely unseen work to develop standards is the vital foundation to all of the innovative technologies that will help grow our economy and address the biggest issues of our day.

We know that NIST has made a difference in the past — one of its first successes was the development of uniform pipe thread standards for fire hydrants that let nearby fire stations provide back up for surrounding communities. NIST solved Baltimore’s problem. Today we need new standards that will solve our nation’s problems and broadly support innovative technologies in healthcare, energy and a host of other fields.

Wu is chairman of the Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation in the House Committee on Science and Technology.