PCAST Briefed on National Nanotechnology Initiative

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Publication date: 
9 December 2011

Members  of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology were briefed  last month on the implementation of the council’s recommendations regarding the  National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).   Now in its tenth year, federal agencies participating in the NNI expend about  $2 billion per year, having spent a cumulative $14 billion on nanotechnology  R&D since its inception.

Office  of Science and Technology Policy Director and PCAST Co-Chair John Holdren opened  the November 2 meeting, remarking that the council has set a record for the  number of issued or forthcoming advisory reports.  Holdren emphasized the Administration’s  determination to use science and technology to strengthen the nation’s  economy.  PCAST’s recommendations have  guided the formulation of the Administration’s policies, he said.   Among those topics that PCAST has issued  reports  on are  advanced manufacturing, information technology, health information technology,  STEM education, and nanotechnology.  An  afternoon session at this meeting featured several senior Administration  officials who briefed PCAST on how the member agencies within the National  Nanotechnology Initiative have implemented the recommendations in the council’s  2010 report on NNI.

NNI  is an interagency effort described as follows on its website:

‘the NNI today consists of  the individual and cooperative nanotechnology-related activities of 25 Federal  agencies with a range of research and regulatory roles and responsibilities.  Fifteen of the participating agencies have research and development (R&D)  budgets that relate to nanotechnology, with the reported NNI budget  representing the collective sum of these investments.

“Funding support for  nanotechnology R&D stems directly from NNI member agencies, not the NNI. As  an interagency effort, the NNI informs and influences the Federal budget and  planning processes through its member agencies and through the National Science  and Technology Council (NSTC). The NNI brings together the expertise needed to  advance this broad and complex field -- creating a framework for shared goals,  priorities, and strategies that helps each participating Federal agency  leverage the resources of all participating agencies.”

Sally Tinkle, Deputy Director  of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office was the first of four  speakers in this sixty-minute briefing.  She  described NNI’s response, on multiple levels, to PCAST’s recommendations.  As examples, she described an increase in the  number of public-private partnerships (citing examples from the NIH and NIST),  outreach to states (including a full-time employee dedicated to this effort), interactions  with officials from the European Union,  better information dissemination programs, and  research on health, environmental, safety, ethical, and legal matters.  NNI agencies will increase their efforts to  target and accelerate sponsored research.   In all, agencies affiliated with NNI have supported 7,800 research  projects in all fifty states, Tinkle said, developing an extensive network of  centers, facilities, and personnel.

Carlos Pena, Director of  Emerging Technology at the Office of Science and Health Coordination of the  Food and Drug Administration was the second speaker.  He described FDA’s efforts to carefully  protect human health while fostering the development of nanotechnology, using  science-based decision making.   Among  those steps it has taken is increasing training of its staff and improved coordination  and cooperation with other agencies.   Pena stressed that additional research is needed on the implications of nanotechnology  on human health and safety, and said new partnerships with other agencies will continue  to be established.

Mihail Roco is the Senior  Advisor for Nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation.  He emphasized the importance of developing  partnerships, working closely with industry, and the success there has been in  the fostering of spin-off companies.  PCAST’s  recommendation to focus on nanotechnology research instead of production and  application is being followed, he said.   Evaluation is underway to determine the outcomes from NNI’s first  decade.  Roco concluded his remarks by predicting  that by 2020 nanotechnology will become a general technology, similar to information  technology.

The last speaker was Lew  Sloter, who is with the Office of the Director, Defense Research and  Engineering of the Department of Defense.   The Defense Department has been involved in the federal government’s nanotechnology  effort since its inception, recognizing its important implications for national  security.  Sloter emphasized how spending  on nanotechnology has increased, with each branch of the military supporting basic  nanotechnology research.  DOD has worked  to implement PCAST’s recommendations, such as expanding outreach to the small  businesses community, industry, and the public. 

Other topics covered in a  concluding question-and-answer period included monthly inter-agency briefings,  meetings with the European Union, products awaiting FDA approval, federal  agency funding collaborations, the desirability of a multi-agency roadmap to  support further development of nanotechnology, the engagement of nongovernmental  stakeholders, and computational support.   While occasional concerns were expressed, on the whole PCAST members  appeared satisfied that the federal government’s nanotechnology programs were  moving in the right direction. 

A webcast and briefing  materials of this meeting is available here.  

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