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NIST: Building a Solid Foundation

Jeffrey Voas, IEEE Fellow
Irena Bojanova, University of Maryland University College

Pages: 13–16

Abstract—For over a century, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has made significant contributions to the world of science and technology, affecting not only US businesses and the economy but also the general public. This introduction provides a snapshot of the impact of NIST's contributions over the last century, while the articles in this special issue focus on NIST's recent contributions in the areas of test generation, search engines, cryptographic standards, and biometrics.

Keywords—NIST; standards; information technology

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a nonregulatory federal agency within the US Department of Commerce. Its mission is “to promote US innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life” ( Founded on 3 March 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), it was the US Federal Government's first physical science research laboratory (

For over a century, NIST has made significant contributions to the world of science and technology, affecting not only US businesses and the economy but also the general public.

NIST Contributions

A variety of today's products and services—-ranging from smoke detectors and atomic clocks to smart electric power grids—employ NIST technology, measurements, and standards. Key examples include computer chips, automated error-correcting software for machine tools, image processing technology, advanced nanomaterials, and pollution-control technology. NIST has also helped define cloud computing, producing a reference architecture and guidelines for using the cloud.13 Furthermore, in the healthcare sector, NIST research has helped produce DNA diagnostic chips, electronic health records, mammography X-ray standards, scanning tunneling microscopy, and high-speed dental drills ( Here, we provide a snapshot of the impact of NIST's contributions over the last century.


NIST's research, standards, and events have influenced and benefited financial services, telecommunications, aerospace, medicine, manufacturing, and the US marketplace as a whole. For details, please see Table 1.

Table 1. NIST contributions to industry (see


Many science experiments benefit from the use of NIST's synchrotron facility. NIST's research has influenced inventions such as gas lasers, methods of cooling and trapping atoms with laser light, and the Topografiner (see Table 2).

Table 2. NIST contributions to science (see


Consumers benefit daily from NIST's work on measurements—examples include fairness in the marketplace owing to trusted weight and volume measurements, accurate radiation doses for diagnosis and treatment, and precise time synchronization through highly accurate atomic clocks. NIST's investigations and standards also help protect us from structural collapses and fire risks (see Table 3).

Table 3. NIST contributions to consumers (see


NIST's developments have led to today's air traffic control, weather forecasting, and smart weapons systems, as well as to the development of cryogenic refrigerators (see Table 4).

Table 4. NIST contributions to technology (see

National Security

NIST contributed to the US aviation modernization, the atomic bomb creation, electronics miniaturization, and the smart weapon systems design (see Table 5).

Table 5. NIST contributions to national security (see

In this Issue

The articles in this special issue focus on NIST's recent contributions in the areas of test generation, search engines, select cybersecurity technologies, and biometrics.

NIST's work on automatic tests generation since 1998 has evolved into a broad area known as model-based testing. NIST's technology has been the basis for the advances in model-based testing worldwide and was also modified to measure the coverage of test suites independent of implementation details. With several commercial tools incorporating model-based test generation, NIST's work laid the foundation for widely used techniques. The first article, “Test Generation Using Model Checking and Specification Mutation,” by Paul E. Black, discusses NIST's relation to computer science, recent work in software testing, and model-based testing and its impact today.

The second article is “Building Better Search Engines by Measuring Search Quality,” by Ellen Voorhees, Paul Over, and Ian Soboroff. It presents the NIST Text Retrieval Conference (TREC) project, which has been instrumental for more than 20 years in creating the infrastructure to measure quality of search results. The discussion is on the origins of TREC; community evaluations; and the developments in the project tracks on filtering, question answering, e-discovery, and video analysis. TREC has helped fuel the recent explosive growth in search-related technologies.

The next article, “NIST and Computer Security,” by William Burr, Hildegard Ferraiolo, and David Waltermire, presents four computer and information security areas in which NIST has significant impact. The areas are cryptographic standards, role-based access control, identification card standards, and security automation (security content automation protocol, and the national vulnerability database). Original NIST research in these areas has led to the development of technologies that have become industry standards and the basis for IT industry products. For example, NIST cryptographic standards are used in banking and electronic commerce and are built into operating systems and communication protocols.

The final article, “NIST Contributions to Biometric Technology,” by Brad Wing, presents NIST contributions to IT applications for biometrics and identity management. For almost 50 years, NIST's work has included the development of hardware and software for automated analysis of fingerprint images; voice recognition capabilities; datasets and testing procedures for performance evaluation of algorithms and equipment; and methods for conducting evaluations using sequestered data. The article discusses NIST's role in the advancement of biometric technology, focusing on research, product and algorithm evaluation, and standardization and best practice guidelines.

For IT professionals, it's important to know about NIST's significant contributions to the world of science and technology, industry, the economy, and the general public. These four articles, as well as this issue's Spotlight department, provide a snapshot of NIST's accomplishments in IT. Furthermore, NIST's Information Technology Laboratory ( has a diverse set of ongoing and future projects that should be of interest to IT professionals.

Jeffrey Voas is an IEEE Fellow and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Contact him at
Irena Bojanova is a professor and program director of information and technology systems at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). You can read her cloud computing blog at Contact her at


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