Senate Nanotechnology Bill Heads to the Floor

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Publication date: 
2 July 2003

Continuing on the fast track, the Senate Commerce Committee has passed a bill to authorize $4.7 billion in nanotechnology research. Passage by the full Senate seems assured, as the bill language was proposed by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and George Allen (R-VA), the principal movers of this legislation, and Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and Ranking Member Ernest Hollings (D-SC). In early May, the House overwhelmingly approved similar legislation.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation passed this legislation, S. 189, by a voice vote on June 19, and sent it to the full Senate. This bill parallels H.R. 766, a Science Committee bill that was passed by a vote of 405-19 on the House floor on May 7.

Both versions of this bill authorize an expanded role for the federal government in nanotechnology research. There are some differences in the two bills that will have to be resolved The House bill authorizes (e.g., establishes new programs, sets funding caps) for three years while the Senate authorization is for five years. But the amounts of money authorized for NSF (the lead agency), DOE, NASA, NIST and EPA in FY 2004, 2005 and 2006 in each bill are almost identical. The Senate bill includes funding levels for NIH, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Agriculture, while the House bill did not since these departments are not under the jurisdiction of the Science Committee. Neither bill dealt directly with the Defense Department which has a significant nanotechnology program; the Senate bill calls for including the activities of the defense program in "interagency coordination."

Each bill takes a somewhat different approach to how the federal nanotechnology research program would be administered at the top. The House wants a new interagency committee, while the Senate bill prefers the existing National Science and Technology Council, a White House level interagency coordinating structure. The House bill authorizes studies on nanotechnology manufacturing and "safe nanotechnology," while the Senate bill establishes two centers.

A significant difference between the two bills is the House authorization for "Science and Technology Graduate Scholarship Programs." More than 20% of the House bill language was devoted to this program, where the Senate Commerce Committee's bill did not include such a provision.

During House debate on the nanotechnology bill the only dissenting voices were from Members wanting a formal mechanism for researching societal implications of nanotechnology (see /fyi/2003/064.html.) Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) prefers that such study be more ingrained throughout the research process than housed in a separate body. The Senate bill authorizes $5 million for an American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center "to encourage, conduct, coordinate, commission, collect, and disseminate research on the educational, legal, workforce, societal, and ethical issues related to nanotechnology." Sentiment on the House floor was that this societal assessment mechanism that the Senate wants would be resolved in a forthcoming conference between the House and Senate, along with, it would appear, the graduate scholarship program that the House wants.

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