Every day we consciously buy products whose performance depends on one or more measured quantities — the wattage and lumens of light bulbs, that 12-ounce cup of coffee, the fill up at the gas station. Many of us take for granted that we are getting our money’s worth, and in large part we are, because the accuracy of these measurements traces back to calibrations and standards from the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
But measurement and other precise specifications also play a much broader, largely invisible economic role. All the sophisticated technologies we depend on daily require equally sophisticated measurement capabilities to ensure performance, quality, and safety. The diameters of optical fibers as thin human hair must match up perfectly to carry telecommunications data and video over thousands of miles. CAT scan machines must deliver the minimum X-ray dose for clear images while protecting patients from unnecessary radiation. The frequencies of cell phone systems must be finely tuned so that you receive clear reception of your calls, and only your calls, without crosstalk from stray signals.
Moreover, virtually every product or service one buys today is a complex technology system (computers, automobiles, even clothes washers). The components of these “systems” can only work together if the physical and functional dimensions of the interfaces between them are precisely specified.
NIST provides the precision measurement and interoperability tools industry needs now while pushing the boundaries of the underlying science to create the enabling infrastructure for the technologies of tomorrow.
Half of the U.S. GDP, $7.5 trillion, is supported by measurement. Twenty-one economic impact studies conducted over the past 12 years have shown that the technical infrastructure—such as measurement devices and instruments, data, standards and services—supplied to industry by NIST delivered a return on investment of about 40 to 1. In other words, for the 21 industry sectors studied, every $1 spent on NIST measurement programs produced on average about $40 in benefits to society.
NIST’s extramural programs also have delivered high returns.
NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership  helps thousands of companies increase productivity, achieve higher profits, find new markets, and adopt new technologies. In Fiscal Year 2009, clients reported that MEP services created and retained more than 72,000 jobs, helped firms increase and retain sales of over $8.4 billion, leveraged nearly $1.9 billion in new private-sector investment, and generated cost savings of over $1.3 billion.
The Baldrige Performance Excellence Program  provides performance improvement best practices and strategies for businesses, schools, health care organizations, and government and nonprofit agencies. Of the five businesses that have earned the Baldrige Award for Performance Excellence twice, all have used the Baldrige Program for at least six years, resulting in a median increase in the number of sites (new franchises, branches, or stores) of 67 percent, a 93 percent growth in revenue, and a 63 percent growth in jobs. In the same period of time their industries’ mean job growth was 3.2%.
Founded in 1901 to serve the needs of industry and consumers, NIST has long played a pivotal, but largely unseen role in the U.S. economy. And, in a sense, the fact that most U.S. consumers assume the products they buy will work reliably and be measured accurately shows that NIST is doing a good job. No one notices when the parts fit together; they only notice when they don’t. NIST measurement research and other technical infrastructure programs enable industry to produce high quality products and to assure consumers that they are getting what they pay for.
In short, accurate measurement and the interoperability tools needed for the cost-effective use of innovative technologies is an investment with high returns for everyone.
Learn more about how NIST creates economic value .