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NIST Director Sees Key Role In Emerging Technologies

Newly confirmed director Patrick Gallagher outlines the agency's efforts in healthcare IT, smart grid, and cybersecurity.

As it takes on research and standardization in the areas of healthcare IT, smart grid, and cybersecurity, the National Institute of Standards and technology has a "critically important" role to play, according to NIST's new director, Patrick Gallagher.

A 16-year NIST veteran and former deputy director, Gallagher's appointment as confirmed by the Senate earlier this month. "What you're going to see is a small parade of things that will become critically important to solving government or national problems where we'll have to tackle them," Gallagher said in an interview.

IT has become an important focus of NIST's efforts. While better known for its work in physics and science -- the agency sets official time in the United States -- NIST's IT work is every bit as significant, Gallagher says. The agency's IT Laboratory accounts for much of the institute's overall lab budget.

NIST, which was given some authority over smart grid standards in 2007, in September released a framework and road map for smart grid interoperability. NIST recently held the first meeting of the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, which will help set standards. It's a pressing, and challenging, task given that government and private utilities are expected to spend $8.1 billion on smart grid projects over the next three years as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"This was a set of activities with a very distinct starting point, but the technology is going to be evolving," Gallagher said. "We have to be wise to make sure we don't lock down standards prematurely. The framework was an important starting point which helps to identify approaches to architecture, urgent standards needs, and gaps in standards." Next up is conformity assessment and testing to help establish a market where buyers have assurance that products will work together.

NIST also plays a key roles in cybersecurity, particularly in the public sector, where it sets standards that civilian agencies need to follow in order to comply with the Federal Information Systems Management Act, which governs federal government cybersecurity practices. "Cybersecurity is going to remain on the front burner," Gallagher said. "This is a big challenge and there's a lot of interest. NIST has an important role to play there, and we'll certainly continue to focus a lot on making sure that role is carried out and is effective."

The agency, which is part of the Department of Commerce, is also working with the Department of Health and Human Services to craft healthcare IT standards and create tools to certify and test devices to ensure they meet those standards.

The agency continues to do advanced research and create IT standards in other areas, as well. Gallagher noted that NIST recently demonstrated what it calls the first programmable quantum computer. It's also working on ways to gather information about a product's lifecycle, including what it takes to produce, manufacture, use, and dispose of a product, which could lead to insights on product sustainability.

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