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Efforts in both houses of Congress to dismantle the Department of Commerce have aroused concern throughout the scientific community over the fate of one of the nation's most venerable and respected laboratories. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which for most of its 94-year history was known as the National Bureau of Standards, is the nation's premier institution devoted to the science and practice of measurement.
In September, 26 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics responded to an initiative by Professor Norman Ramsey of Harvard to inform lawmakers of the special role of NIST in the nation's scientific enterprise. They were joined by the presidents of scientific societies and organizations representing a broad spectrum of research in the physical sciences. In a letter addressed to members of Congress, the Nobelists referred to NIST as a "national treasure." In a similar letter, heads of organizations concerned with the health of American science argued that downsizing government should not be allowed to jeopardize a "vital scientific resource."
The first warnings of trouble came in the early days of the new Congress. The President's budget request called for another major increase in the NIST budget, with most of it targeted for Manufacturing Extension Partnerships and the Advanced Technology Program, both under attack by the new Republican majority. Even the 1988 change in the name of the laboratory, which came at a time when Democrats in Congress were calling for an emphasis on "strategic research," has become a liability. It has led many freshman members of Congress, who are leading the drive to dismantle Commerce, to identify NIST with "corporate welfare."
The letters from the Nobel laureates and heads of science organizations were an effort to inform lawmakers of the full range of NIST's contributions to the nation's scientific and technological enterprise. "Scientists from nearly every state in the country come to the NIST laboratories to carry out their research," the letter from the societies said. "Consequently, the NIST laboratories have a strong record of contributing to the nation's technological and scientific competitiveness and are a crucial component of the nation's long-term basic research."
Organizations lending their support to the effort included the Acoustical Society of America, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, the American Vacuum Society, the Association of American Universities, the Federation of Materials Societies, the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.
The full text of the letter from prominent Nobel laureates appears above, with a list of signatories.
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