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Editor's Note: This article was commissioned by the American National Standards Institute for Science's Next Wave.

Like the trailing, unseen strings of numbers that make up "the Matrix," the world of standards operates as a mystery to most--affecting all but understood by few. What is a standard? One definition is "a recognized unit of comparison by which the correctness of others can be determined." Although definitions may vary, standardization, when it's understood, can be a very powerful tool to promote business success, advance scientific endeavors, and support consumer satisfaction.

The scientific and engineering communities are interwoven with the U.S. standardization infrastructure. The time is right to strengthen this relationship by increasing participation in standardization activities and heightening the awareness of the importance of standards in higher education venues, among consumers, and throughout the scientific community.

American National Standards

On 19 October 1918, the American National Standards Institute ( ANSI) was founded in New York City by five organizations: the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now IEEE), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers (AIMME), and the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM).

Those organizations, along with the U.S. departments of War, Navy, and Commerce, joined to establish a national body to coordinate standards development and to serve as a clearinghouse for the work of standards-developing agencies. This group served as the national coordinator of the standards-development process as well as an impartial organization to approve national consensus standards and halt user confusion on acceptability.

In 85 years, ANSI has grown into a unique and diversified federation that includes industry, standards-developing organizations, trade associations, professional and technical societies, research centers, laboratories, government, and labor and consumer groups. The institute works extensively with both national and international standards bodies to ensure that American interests are well represented in the development of global activities that assess conformance to standards. As the country's official member body, ANSI ensures that U.S. interested parties have access to the standards-development processes of the International Organization for Standardization and, by means of the U.S. National Committee, to the International Electrotechnical Commission. ANSI is also involved in regional conformity assessment and standards organizations in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Pacific Rim.

Domestically, ANSI provides a forum where the private and public sectors can cooperatively work together toward the development of voluntary national consensus standards. It is important to remember, however, that ANSI does not itself write standards. Rather, ANSI creates an environment for the development of standards by accrediting developers who then pull together subject matter experts for content development. ANSI-accredited standards developers participate in the standards development process voluntarily. The institute does not serve as a regulatory body, nor does it have unconditional authority over its accredited developers.

Consensus-Based and Open Processes

At the heart of the U.S. system are the documents that arise from this formal, coordinated, consensus-based, and open process. These are commonly called voluntary consensus standards and are written by industry professionals from both the public and private sectors. The voluntary process requires full cooperation by all parties, relying upon data gathering and compromises among a diverse range of stakeholders.

The open and fair American National Standards process ensures that all interested and affected parties have an opportunity to participate in a standard's development. It also serves and protects the public interest, because standards developers accredited by ANSI must meet the institute's requirements for openness, balance, consensus, and other due-process safeguards.

ANSI's focus has always been to remain responsive to the evolving needs of its constituents. The institute's programs are constantly expanding and are modified to meet the changing needs of industry, government, and other sectors. Standardization needs are addressed in fields such as nuclear energy, information technology, materials handling, and electronics. Alongside traditional engineering committees and design-based standards are new and innovative projects ranging from quality and environmental management to standards for the service industry and most recently, for personnel certification programs.

Although ANSI is not a regulatory body, it has important partnerships with the public sector and serves as an information provider to bridge the gap between standards developers and the government agencies that create legislation affecting the standards community. ANSI has worked to facilitate the growing trend of government agencies using voluntary consensus standards created by the private sector as an alternative to agency-developed standards.

Earlier this year, ANSI formed a cross-sector group to address homeland security and emergency preparedness. The ANSI Homeland Security Standards Panel is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to develop solutions that will help protect national infrastructures; support emergency preparedness; advance technologies in biometrics, information technology, and secure financial networks; and much more.

American National Standards in Science

Standards have a daily impact on the work and safety of almost every research lab in America, as evidenced by these voluntary industry standards:

ANSI Z87.1: Practice for Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection

ANSI Z136.1: American National Standard for Safe Use of Lasers

ANSI Z358.1: Emergency Eyewash and Shower Equipment

ANSI Z400.1: Hazardous Industrial Chemicals--Material Safety Data Sheets--Preparation

ANSI Z540.1: Calibration Laboratories and Measuring and Test Equipment General Requirements

ANSI/NFPA 704: Chemical Hazard Label (example illustrated above)

Benefits to Science and Industry

The work of scientists, chemists, chemical engineers, and other professionals in the scientific community is vitally important to the homeland security initiative. But standards impact technology and the rate of technological development in nearly all industries, not just homeland security.

There is a shared awareness of the growing need for globally relevant products, processes, systems, and personnel, and of the impact of market forces such as global trade and competition. Experience shows that companies that assume a leadership role in standardization gain a strategic advantage in the marketplace. A company that successfully introduces its technology to a standards-setting committee may gain a lead-time advantage that allows them to build a huge market for its products while their competitors are playing catch-up. This company may also be able to reallocate resources to the development of "next generation" technologies rather than to the retooling of an existing product line to encompass a standard that was more heavily influenced by a competitor.

Participating in standards development activities offers an opportunity to influence domestic and international policy, benefit from unique networking opportunities, and learn from international colleagues. It also provides a forum for the presentation of U.S., corporate or, perhaps, personal positions and the opportunity to comment upon proposals submitted by others.

Sarah C. McCreary is a writer with the American National Standards Institute and may be reached by e-mail at smccreary@ansi.org.