Imagine a world where shoe sizes were not standardized, or where golf balls came in a variety of sizes and weights. What if your favorite CDs didn’t fit in your friend’s CD player? None of these things are problems today, thanks to an army of unsung heroes known as standards.
Standards—agreed upon parameters such as the size and shape of electrical outlets, the number of threads per inch on machine bolts, or the tolerances allowed for various medical tests—may seem arcane or abstract. But they are critical to American competitiveness, technological innovation, and global trade because they facilitate manufacturing, speed delivery, and enable the widespread use of countless products and services in the market today.
Today, in recognition of the importance of standards, the President’s National Science and Technology Council released a new report on Federal government engagement in standards-setting processes to further national priorities.
In the United States, standards are mostly developed and adopted by the private sector. The new report supports this system, noting that the vibrancy and effectiveness of the U.S. standards system depends on this leadership and engagement. In fact, many standards developed and used by U.S. markets were created with little or no government involvement. But the report also notes that in areas where the government is an important player (e.g., Health IT and Smart Grid), Federal involvement is desirable.
In fact, when a national priority is identified in statute or Administration policy, active engagement by the Federal government—often working through private-sector standards organizations—may accelerate standards development and implementation. In these cases, the report concludes, a clearly defined Federal role can catalyze breakthrough advances, promote market-based innovation, and encourage more competitive market outcomes. Working closely with private-sector companies, consumer advocates, academic experts, and standards organizations, the Federal government can help convene all interested private stakeholders to contribute towards a common goal.
One thing worth appreciating about standards, even though it may seem counterintuitive, is that they are capable of evolving. Take for example Internet Protocol (IP), which is the networking standard used to route electronic information packets around the world. Like most Internet and Web standards, IP was developed and is used by a multitude of stakeholders across the world and the general agreement codified in this standard has been essential to the growth and vibrancy of the Internet. But if the IP standard never changed, the Internet would have a hard time growing and being innovative.
Happily, standards are “living” agreements. In the case of IP, the next generation protocol (IPv6) is in the process of being launched to support a range of new Internet devices that will make people’s lives easier and more productive. At the same time, the World Wide Web Consortium is working on a new version of HTML, the lingua franca in which billions of Web pages are written. The new version, HTML5, already supported by many leading browsers, will enable a whole new generation of interactive Web applications and serve as the programming language of the future Web.
The Obama Administration is committed to making the most of standards to make people's lives safer and easier and to boost the economy. Interested in the wide world of standards? Read more here.
Mary H. Saunders is the Director of the Standards Coordination Office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology
Nick Sinai is Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer