Science Committee Reviews Nanotechnology Initiative Report

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Publication date: 
11 July 2005

"To date, the NNI [National Nanotechnology Initiative] has helped to bring the United States to a global leadership position in nanotechnology, but that status is being aggressively challenged by other nations, and the United States cannot rest on its laurels." - PCAST report

The House Subcommittee on Research has held two hearings to review the conclusions of a nanotechnology report prepared by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The report, Members of the subcommittee, and witnesses (including PCAST Co-Chair Floyd Kvamme) were in agreement that the United States is the leader in nanotechnology, but all warned that other countries could overtake the U.S.

The report was mandated by the 21st Century National Nanotechnology Research and Development Act which became law in late 2003. One of the act's provisions required an external advisory panel to review the Federal nanotechnology program at least every two years. The first report was issued in mid-May and is entitled, "The National Nanotechnology Initiative at Five Years: Assessment and Recommendations of the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel." The 50-page report is both comprehensive and highly readable, and can be accessed under "Reports" at PCAST members discussed and approved the report during a meeting last March.

The federal government will have invested $4.0 billion in nanotechnology from FY 2001 through September of this year. The Administration has requested more than $1 billion for nanotechnology research in FY 2006 in the budgets of 11 federal agencies. Nanotechnology has consistently been described as high priority research by both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

The report addressed four questions: "where do we stand?"; "is this money well spent and the program well managed?"; "are we addressing societal concerns and potential risks?"; and "how can we do better?" PCAST concluded that the U.S. "is the acknowledged leader in nanotechnology R&D," with total annual public and private investment of $3 billion, roughly one-third of worldwide spending. The U.S. ranks first in the number of start-up companies, patents, and publications in nanotechnology. Federal money spent on expanding knowledge and in the construction of infrastructure "has been both appropriate and wise," the report concludes, adding "the economic payoffs over the long term are likely to be substantial." The report acknowledges societal concerns and potential risks, and states that the government "is moving deliberately to identify, prioritize, and address such concerns."

In answering the fourth question - "how can we do better?" - the report categorizes its conclusions in four areas. It called for steps to increase technology transfer, noting the important role that states are playing, and the need to improve knowledge management. In an important statement, the report concludes:

"Although ultimate commercialization of nanotechnology is desirable and to be supported, the NNI [National Nanotechnology Initiative] must remain mindful that its primary focus is on developing an understanding of the novel properties that occur at the nanoscale and the ability to control matter at the atomic and molecular level. While we all want the United States to benefit economically from nanotechnology as quickly as possible, it is critically important that the basic intellectual property surrounding nanotechnology be generated and reside within this country. Those who hold this knowledge will ‘own' commercialization in the future."

The report cautions that U.S. leadership is slipping, explaining "the trends in all categories - investment, publications, and patents - show steady erosion in the percentage lead of the United States over time."

Also under the category of "how can we do better?," was a call for clearer regulations regarding nanotechnology's environmental and health implications. Again, the report provides an apt statement: "Nanotechnology products should not be immune from regulation, but such regulation must be rational and based on science, not perceived fears." In addition, the report calls attention to the need for better national education/workforce preparation, and research on nanotechnology's societal implications.

The report was the subject of two hearings by the House Subcommittee on Research, chaired by Bob Inglis (R-SC). Members and witnesses generally agreed with the report's findings. One common observation was fear that the U.S. was not producing enough scientists and engineers. Kvamme addressed this at some length, saying "we've got to change that perception that there are not jobs for these people . . . we have to remove that notion that we don't need more engineers, we don't need more scientists." He suggested that financial incentives be considered to attract more students into engineering and science, calling predicted shortages of such professionals his biggest worry in maintaining U.S. leadership in nanotechnology.

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