Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Commerce confirmed Patrick Gallagher as the 14th director of its National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Although the title may be new to Gallagher, NIST's mission of developing measurement science, standards and technology isn't. The 46-year-old physicist began his career in the organization's NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) in 1993 to pursue studies in neutron and x-ray instrumentation; in 2004 he became NCNR's director.

Now Gallagher is responsible for NIST's broader set of programs, which includes a vast spectrum of research in areas including robotics and artificial intelligence, construction standards, computer security protocols and quantum physics, to name just a few.

The agency's Intelligent Systems Division, for example, has spent more than $125 million and three decades developing robotic autonomous intelligent control subsystem called 4D/RCS. The agency is also working with the Michigan Department of Transportation on a $19-million project to build next-generation monitoring systems for bridges. In an effort to improve data security, NIST compiled a list of recommendations that government departments and agencies encrypt all data on mobile computers and devices unless the information was deemed "nonsensitive" in writing by the department or agency head.

How important is NIST? Important enough for the Obama administration to promise the agency $610 million in funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to pay for research, grants and new equipment as well as the construction of new facilities and laboratories. (NIST's total budget for fiscal 2009 is $1.6 billion.)

ScientificAmerican.com recently spoke with Gallagher about this dramatic increase in funding, NIST's plans for that money, and the importance of high school math and science.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

How would you define NIST's mission?

NIST has a broad mission to promote competitiveness. The best way to think of NIST is as a four-program organization, with NIST Laboratories being what most people think of when they think of NIST. These labs are the nation's measurement laboratory, and the work they do is designed to put trust into all the transactions and interactions that take place in our economy.

How much does NIST's work impact people's lives on a daily basis?
Think about what NIST does just in terms of how a computer operates. We work behind the scenes to define security standards such as the encryption used to code and decode the information sent over the Internet. Your computer's clock [[http://tf.nist.gov/]] is probably set using the NIST time signal. In the computer itself we've looked at the performance and energy efficiency of its chips and the materials used to make and solder those chips inside the computer. We also set standards for monitors and other display technologies.

There's no shortage of technology priorities for the country at this time. What would you say are some of the most significant?
It's less about which technologies are driving, and more about what's pulling on the technology. Technology is a big component of how the country will solve a lot of problems. As a country, we have to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, improve health care delivery, and improve physical infrastructure. Technology will play a critical role in how we do this, and NIST has to provide the measurements and standards to ensure this technology is up to the challenge.

Why are measurements and standards so important?
Most technologies are not in and of themselves self-sufficient, or vertically integrated. You assemble most technologies from other technologies, and you need to know that these different components will fit together. This almost always involves a measured standard. If you're going to buy a smart meter or a smart appliance for your home, you're going to want to know that this technology will talk to the smart grid, and that's a measurement problem.

What role will measurements and standards play in the development of electronic medical records, a technology the Obama administration has made a top priority?

At a very deep level, it's about changing the way we do medicine. NIST has two roles: One is supporting how the medical systems that create the information for these records interoperate. The other is establishing protocols for medical tests. There's a lot more art than science here today, because the people who developed these different technologies had a different approach that maybe didn't take measurement science into account. They were more focused on providing a specific outcome for a specific procedure. NIST is full of measurement specialists, so we have a different way of looking at things. For example, there aren't standards when it comes to medical imaging, and this is an area we're actively working to develop.

How will the dramatic increase in funding affect NIST and your main goals for the agency?
NIST's mission is becoming critically important and very visible. We've become a priority of the president in terms of funding, and I'm trying to make sure we can meet that responsibility. Visibility at that level creates an urgency that's not there when you're not singled out as a priority. There are a lot of inside baseball issues that we will address to make ourselves more efficient. You can burn a lot of time getting people together to build an effective team for a new project. One of the real successes of our smart grid effort, for example, has been quickly pulling together a very diverse group of stakeholders (utility companies, local and state regulators, equipment manufacturers, ISPs, telecom and wireless tech providers) who had not worked together before. In the meantime, our scientists are ready to go on this project.

Before beginning your career as a scientist, you spent a year teaching high school math and science in Missouri. How did that experience prepare you for your current position?
I loved it. I have to confess, if I thought I could have made a real career out of it I would have stayed with it. There's nothing more basic to building the future of the country than education. It was also one of the hardest jobs I've had. Six courses a day back to back with three minutes in between and no lunch, I was a basket case by the end of the day. One of the more rewarding experiences came in 1986 during the Challenger space shuttle tragedy. I remember dropping our normal lesson plans to talk about it. It's not something you plan for, and it was a powerful experience. The kids were really fascinated by what happened. In the end I found that at least at the high school level, I was going to be teaching someone else's curriculum and that the logical career path was to move into administration. I saw more opportunities in going back to school and getting my graduate degree.

You mentioned the importance of education to a country's future. How would you encourage young people to become interested in education—in particular math, science and technology?
My message is the country needs you to do it if you have the interest. The other lesson is that there are many, many more career opportunities that are built on a foundation of math and science than you can imagine (including teaching, copyright law, high-tech manufacturing, medicine and health care). You don't necessarily have to be a mathematician or a scientist.