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Speech at JILA 50th Anniversary Event

JILA, Boulder CO, July 13, 2012, Dr. Patrick Gallagher, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director 

It's a real pleasure to be here on this occasion. JILA is one year older than me, so I have to be a little careful here. And of course I've been trying to decide whether this is a 50th birthday party or a 50th anniversary. A birthday party, of course, is a celebration of a brand-new beginning, of a birth, and certainly this is that. JILA was born 50 years ago, this wonderful partnership. But an anniversary is often a celebration of a union between two, forming a partnership, that results in continuous creation, and this is very much that as well. And like all milestone events, it's a reunion, and so it's good to see everybody here. It's also a chance, as the chancellor said, to both look back and to look forward. I think equal parts reflection and expectation.

I understand yesterday's science and history talks helped everybody have a chance to look back at JILA's remarkable history of firsts. Laboratory first in the creation of a new understanding of science, new states of matter, new phenomena, laser frequency combs, new tools, and new fields of research like ultracold chemistry.

JILA can be proud of its contributions to education, standing as a centerpiece in this campus and providing a unique opportunity for students to learn at the cutting edge of atomic, molecular, and optical physics.

JILA also, as it was pointed out, has played a central role in technology. It shouldn't come as any surprise that a centerpiece of science almost inevitably comes with it a spirit of entrepreneurship and creation. And JILA has this remarkable history now of 11 high-tech different companies operating right here in Colorado based on JILA discoveries and often started by former JILA staff. What's interesting to me is not only that these companies exist, but the wide range of products that they produce:

  • Highly stable lasers used for everything from eye surgery to precision rulers
  • Scientific refrigerators for superconducting detectors.
  • Advanced gravity meters for detecting and measuring earthquakes.
  • Optics and coatings for the telecommunications industry.
  • Tools for studying how biomolecules interact.
  • Medical devices for diagnosing disease in blood samples, and even scientifically accurate visualizations of black holes.

It's really remarkable.

But I think for me looking back, one of the most remarkable aspects of the JILA story is the people that were part of it. It's especially gratifying to me to see Lew Branscomb here, and Jan Hall, two of the original seven NIST scientists, NBS scientists, who moved here from Washington to establish JILA. We are fortunate that other members of the original JILA team have also returned home for this celebration.

Lew, along with Dick Thomas of NIST, were the driving force behind JILA. It was their vision and the vision of their counterparts at CU that got us to this celebration today, and the incredible reach of the JILA scientists who have worked here ever since.

Lew, as many of you know, went on to become Director of NIST and is my predecessor and a personal inspiration to me.

And Jan, of course, not only won JILA's third Nobel Prize, but his pioneering research helped to make lasers one of the most widespread technologies of our time--Certainly true in the world of metrology that NIST is centered on. He has also trained and continues to train some of best scientists who work at NIST.

JILA has a remarkable history of supporting women in science, as the chancellor mentioned already. MacArthur Fellows.

The other aspect of JILA is one of partnership. I don't know if this was part of the magic sauce that was being discussed at the time, but one of the most remarkable features of JILA looking back is the incredible power of this partnership between a state institute of learning here at the University of Colorado and a federal agency with a specific mission to advance measurement science. What's most remarkable to me is not only that it flourished initially but it continues to flourish 50 years later and it retains its essential character as a partner. A partnership is one where the parties don't lose their identity. The NIST scientists working here at JILA still are a core part of our mission, and the faculty here at JILA are a core part of the mission of the university, and yet the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. What's happened in this partnership is really special.

As Jan Hall calls it, the "secret sauce" at JILA is the combination of federal scientists working side-by-side with university faculty in an environment with enthusiastic students and post docs and in a vibrant teaching environment. This simple idea has transformed NIST, and I believe it has transformed the way all federal agencies have begun to look at the power of public-private partnerships.

Looking forward, and I want to sort of add the same way the chancellor did, unlike a human 50th milestone event, where we spend a lot more time looking backward than forward, I think in the case of JILA this is still closer to the beginning. This is a celebration not only of what enormous accomplishments that have occurred to date, but of incredible promise of what's going to happen looking forward. This is true in the partnership realm. The type of partnership we've built here at JILA is a model for going forward. In fact, the President included a specific line item in this budget for this year of $20 million to establish more centers of excellence just like JILA.

These centers would be created with grants to single or multi-university applicants and would be places where this magic union between academic, government, and industry researchers can participate in groundbreaking, interdisciplinary collaborations.

The magic sauce of education here at JILA is as healthy as it is, we're going to see that momentarily at the poster session, the creativity and enthusiasm of top scientists and students from around the world are coming to JILA, and of course the scientific frontiers are as bright as they've ever been. I think the future of JILA is assured.

I want to add my congratulations to everyone here and I really want to acknowledge the founding members that began this journey for us. It's been a real privilege for me to join you today. Thank you very much.