Although the value of science and technology seemed unquestionable, federal agencies still needed to demonstrate the value they returned to taxpayers. This was particularly true as Americans began focusing, perhaps more than ever, on their economic prospects. The 1980s, after all, are often characterized as a time when Americans became preoccupied with money. And yet there was a collective uncertainty concerning how to explain economic growth and, in particular, how to sustain it. Thus, after decades of contributing to the national prosperity in myriad ways, NIST began efforts to formally demonstrate its influence. NIST researcher holding Artificial Joints To contribute to the development of standards for medical and surgical devices, NIST researchers studied materials used in artificial joints.
In 1981, the first formal analysis of the economic impact of NIST programs was published. A consultant estimated that the semiconductor metrology program significantly boosted the industry's productivity in the mid-1970s, improving product features and reliability, increasing production yields, and reducing costs-and providing social returns that matched or exceeded levels reported elsewhere for privately generated innovations. The study estimated that the metrology program's research contributed $30 million to $50 million per year to the semiconductor industry in the mid-1970s. More than 20 other economic impact studies since have been carried out for NIST laboratory programs, revealing substantial returns on investment.