Federal agency NIST is a shining light on Capitol Hill

The Oconee Enterprise, January 19, 2017:
Dr. David Lewis

The National Institute for Standards & Technology, formerly National Bureau of Standards, is a non-regulatory federal agency under the U.S. Department of Commerce. Created by Congress in 1901, its mission is to “promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.” As it began, so it is to this day, an agency above reproach.

NBS/NIST Division Chief James F. Schooley, a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from UC Berkley, documented the Bureau’s history in his Culture of Excellence Series. He begins: “Political pressure is the bane of objective scientific work in any setting, university, industry, or government.” It’s the story of how scientific integrity prevailed over politics under Director Allen V. Astin, a graduate of New York University with a PhD in physics. Astin was perhaps best known as the father of Gomez Addams on The Addams Family TV series. But it’s what he, and the Bureau’s rank and file scientists, did after WWII that every new hire is taught to this day.

Dr. Lewis’ article posted in The Oconee Enterprise – Click to enlarge David Lewis

According to Schooley, it all began in 1948 when Jess Ritchie, a businessman from California, asked Bureau Chief Edward Condon to test a battery additive called AD-X2. Condon declined because the Bureau rarely tested commercial products, and only when other agencies requested assistance. Ritchie turned to Republican Senator William F. Knowland of California; and over 20 US Senators joined the attack on the Bureau’s testing programs. Condon resigned several years later under fire from the House Committee on Un-American Activities for opposing US accumulation of nuclear weapons.

To replace Condon, President Truman appointed Allen Astin, who was confirmed by the Senate in 1952. As Congress continued to apply pressure, the Bureau and several leading universities, including MIT, finally tested Ritchie’s battery additive. All of them found it to be ineffective. Nevertheless, pressure to approve the additive intensified under Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, who campaigned on getting the government off the backs of small businesses.

Sinclair Weeks, Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce, and his NBS Bureau Chief were both businessmen. They concluded that the previous administration had unfairly besmirched the small company’s battery additive, and asked for Astin’s resignation. With Astin out of the way, Weeks moved to make the Bureau more business friendly.

Astin’s firing, however, led journalist Drew Pearson to write a scathing column carried by the Washington Post and hundreds of other newspapers. Protests ensued by the Federation of American Scientists, American Physical Society and scientists at large. At the NBS, nearly 400 staff members threatened to resign, which would have doomed important national and military programs. The Bureau’s advisory committee, which included members of the National Academy of Sciences and Bell Telephone Laboratories, demanded that Astin be reinstated. Weeks conceded.

This legacy of scientific integrity prevailing over politics lives on at NIST. Never before in our history has such an example been needed more than in this present hour.

The opinions expressed are those of former EPA research microbiologist David L. Lewis, Ph.D., author of Science for Sale (Skyhorse Publishing, NY) and research director for the Focus for Health Foundation (www.focusforhealth.org/davidlewis).

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