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Remarks at NIST Roundtable on Government Engagement in Standards Setting

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke
Remarks at NIST Roundtable on Government Engagement in Standards Setting

Thank you Pat and good morning everyone. I want to thank all of you for being here.  I also want to thank those who have joined us via the web.

We are especially pleased to have a couple key administration colleagues joining us today:

  • Aneesh Chopra, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer; and
  • Phil Weiser, who is a Senior Advisor on Technology and Innovation with the White House National Economic Council

While the development of technical standards may be an arcane subject to some, those of you here know the tremendous impact standards can have on U.S. competitiveness, innovation, job creation, and – ultimately – our standard of living.

We meet here this morning, three weeks into 2011, with the American economy stronger than at any time since the Great Recession began in December 2007.

Retail sales just had their strongest quarterly gain since 2001.  And private sector employment grew every single month in 2010, with the manufacturing sector posting its first increase in annual employment since 1997.  

Beginning with the Recovery Act and continuing through the December 2010 tax cut package – there are strong indications that the measures the Obama administration has been taking to foster economic recovery are working.

But that’s not to suggest that anyone within the Obama administration or the Commerce Department is satisfied – not with unemployment still over 9 percent. 

As we move forward this year and even next, I hope everyone in Washington remembers that the most important contest for Americans right now is not between Democrats and Republicans, but between America and countries around the world that are competing like never before for the jobs and industries of the future.

The people in this room are going to have a lot to say about how well America does in this competition, because standards are an important part of the economic infrastructure that the private sector needs to build upon. 

The common practices, specifications and guidelines that you help develop are often integral to the growth of new product lines and even new industries. 

Your role will only increase with the passage of The America COMPETES Act of 2010, which is designed to strengthen U.S. leadership in science and technology.

The legislation puts new emphasis on the work NIST is doing in the standards area.  NIST has been a focal point of the federal government’s standardization efforts for over 100 years –  and has played a key role in promoting international standardization since World War II.

The legislation directs NIST to collaborate with industry on cloud computing standards, formalizing NIST’s cloud computing activities begun in the past two years.

Additionally, it authorizes a green manufacturing and construction initiative that will help produce high-performance building standards.

The legislation also created a new position – Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology – which has now been added to Dr. Gallagher’s title. Congratulations, Pat.

NIST could have no more competent, more farsighted leader at this important time in our economic history than Dr. Gallagher.  NIST is at a bit of a crossroads, and at such crossroads institutions require wise leadership.

I say NIST is at a crossroads – and perhaps our perspective on standards is at a crossroads – because the nation has recently relied on NIST to coordinate and support private industry efforts to help America achieve a series of key national priorities.

For example, the nation needs – and the Obama administration is helping to build – a cleaner, more efficient system of energy generation and transmission.

And of course, a huge part of that effort is the development of a secure and more efficient national smart grid.  

If smart grid technology is deployed across the United States, it could help reduce power demand by more than 20 percent in some areas, which is significant enough to eliminate the need to run hundreds of power generators during times of peak demand. 

And if we want to scale up clean energy generation, and the new jobs that come from creating thousands of new wind turbines and solar panels – you’d better believe we’ll need a reliable, interoperable smart grid to manage the energy that powers our homes and businesses.

But to make it happen, we’ll need to have a common set of standards to ensure all the hardware and software is compatible.  We’ve got to ensure that the appliance makers and utilities and IT companies are reading from the same songbook.

It’s a little like building a house.  You can’t have guys on one side putting up a wall assuming there's going to be a 10-foot ceiling, and another group on the other side of the house putting up a wall assuming a 12-foot ceiling.

Pat and his team have already done a tremendous job moving us towards common standards so that smart grid technology can pervade the nation, and indeed the world.  Last year, they rolled out Version 1.0 of the Smart Grid Interoperability Framework.

And I’ve been told important progress has already been made on harmonizing software-based standards for the computers that will support our smart grids. 

Of course, the smart grid is only one example of how we are helping move the ball forward on a series of national priorities.

Look at healthcare, where digitized medical records will play such an important role in bringing down costs and reducing medical errors.  NIST is helping the private sector as it develops standards for that suite of technology too.

Or look at nationally critical areas like public safety communications where robust standards efforts are also underway.  The list goes on.

Importantly, we’re also continuing to collaborate on world standards with the EU and other partners in the international community to come up with compatible systems and keep markets open.

If we in the West do not work together, other countries will adopt their own standards to protect their markets, keep foreign companies ou,t and gain competitive advantage, at least in the short term.

But over time, these types of protectionist measures 

not only frustrate trade but threaten the free flow of capital, and ideas that are so necessary for innovation.

It’s been over 100 years since standards became a U.S. government focus, when manufacturers began moving en masse to foreign markets.  They wanted to be able to guarantee the uniformity and quality of their exports.

But as the noted scientist Vannevar Bush pointed out, standards development can hardly occur in an ivory tower.

So, we’re here today to ask:

What can government do better to enhance the efficiency and responsiveness of the private sector standards development process? 

What is the proper role for the federal government in catalyzing positive outcomes?

How well are existing public-private initiatives in standardization working? 

Can we articulate a rule of thumb for when the government ought to play a catalyzing role and when it ought to stay on the sidelines?

This is an important set of questions with many nuances. And I am very much looking forward to your answers and to hearing the results of this discussion.

Thank you.