After almost three hours of debate and a series of roll call votes, the House of Representatives has passed legislation authorizing $2.4 billion for nanotechnology research over three years. With almost universal support expressed for nanotechnology, last week's debate on the House floor centered on possible societal impacts of what House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) called "a key to future economic prosperity." The Senate is expected to act on its own bill within the next few weeks.
H.R. 766, the National Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, is on a fast track. It has been just three months since it was introduced by Chairman Boehlert and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA). In those three months the bill was the subject of two House hearings and a successful committee markup. A similar bill in the Senate, S. 189, also enjoys bipartisan support, and was reviewed during a Senate hearing earlier this month. Both bills build on nanotechnology initiatives that have extended over two Administrations. As Boehlert said, "there is already broad agreement on both sides of the aisle, in the administration, and, indeed, in the country at large."
In his remarks, Honda made the case for the legislation, saying, "In today's business climate, the demand for short-term returns prevents companies from investing in long-term, high-risk work, which advancing nanotechnology will require. Therefore, the Federal Government is one of the few investors that can take a long-term view and make the sustained investments that are required to bring the field to maturity."
The stakes are high. Several Members noted that the National Science Foundation has estimated that by the year 2015 the international market for nanotechnology products and services could total $1 trillion. Members expressed concern that the United States could fall behind Japan, South Korea, and Europe in the development of nanotechnology. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) told her colleagues that "nanotechnology could very well be the catalyst for national competitiveness for the next fifty years." Honda later commented, "It is imperative that in this race, the U.S. must be first across the finish line."
Under Boehlert's and Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall's (D-TX) leadership, the Science Committee has approached its work in a congenial and bipartisan manner. That spirit was reflected on the House floor when the time came to offer amendments to the bill. Most of these amendments centered on getting a better handle on possible negative societal impacts of nanotechnology. Citing unintended impacts from nuclear power, DDT, semiconductor manufacture, and cloning, several Members contended that the provisions in H.R. 766 on identifying and mitigating undesired impacts be strengthened. Three of the four amendments dealt specifically with these concerns. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) offered two of the amendments. One was rewritten on the floor with the assistance of Science Committee staff and was then accepted. Another was withdrawn by her following promises that the subject would be revisited in a later House-Senate conference. Two amendments offered by Rep. Chris Bell (D-TX) specifying that toxicological and energy research be performed failed after a amicable exchange of views. The House then passed H.R. 766 by an overwhelming vote of 405-19.