The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Science and Space held a hearing last month to examine the reauthorization of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Members on both sides of the aisle touted their support for the program because of the potential nanotechnology holds to improve human welfare and create new jobs.
Full Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) gave the first opening statement, setting the tone of the hearing:
“There are significant economic and societal incentives to maintain our lead in this field. The global market for nanotechnology-related products was more than $200 billion in 2009, and projections suggesting that it will reach $1 trillion by 2015. With this growth, comes demand for workers with nanotechnology-related skills.
“Nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionize such areas as health care, information technology, energy, homeland security, food safety, and transportation.
“At a time when Americans and American businesses are struggling financially, we must do whatever we can to stimulate the economy. This Committee has spent a lot of time this Congress focusing on job creation and manufacturing. I believe nanotechnology plays a key role in boosting the economy and creating jobs.”
Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), echoed Rockefeller’s enthusiasm, citing nanotechnology as one of the few growing areas of the American economy. She said that “the United States must do more to take advantage of the already great growth we have seen,” and noted that the Nobel Prize-winning researchers who invented the buckyball were at Rice University.
Science and Space Subcommittee Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR) said that “there is no doubt that advances in science and engineering are essential for ensuring American’s economic growth and global competitiveness” and called federal investment in nanotechnology research a “striking success story.” He stressed the need for more outreach to states and further efforts to work collaboratively, but praised the NNI for having earned a reputation as being an effective, successful, and cooperative organization.
Subcommittee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) was equally enthusiastic about nanotechnology, speaking about exciting applications such as improved cancer detection and advanced materials many orders of magnitude stronger and lighter than conventional steel.
The first witness was Chad Mirkin, Director of the Northwestern University International Institute for Nanotechnology and member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He discussed the contributions nanoscience are making in a variety of fields and the need for the U.S. to continue making substantial investments. He said that:
“the rest of the world now understands the importance of this field, and many countries are building efforts that rival what has been established by the NNI. This includes dozens of institutes throughout China, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and many countries in Europe, including Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. If the United States does not act now and aggressively pursue the development of nanoscience and nanotechnology, we will lose our position as the global leader in this transformative field; moreover, we will lose the opportunities it can afford us to build our economy and new manufacturing base.”
The second witness was Charles Romine, Acting Associate Director for Laboratory Programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), who discussed the NNI Strategic Plan and NIST’s role in advancing nanotechnology. He emphasized the variety of partnerships NNI engenders, saying that:
“NIST’s partnership with the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI), a consortium that brings together the semiconductor electronics industry, government agencies, and universities, has leveraged a modest NIST investment ($2.75 million per year) by $5 million per year from industry partners and $15 million per year from states to support projects at 30 universities to work in 4 regional centers. The partnership has attracted $110 million over five years in state and private funding to support business development and commercialization.”
The final three witnesses discussed their experiences working in various fields within nanotechnology and the fact that their work was made possible in large part by investments made through the NNI. Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, Director of the West Virginia Nano Initiative and Professor of Physics at West Virginia University, spoke of her work, which uses magnetic nanoparticles attached to chemotherapy molecules to target tumors.
Thomas O’Neal, Associate Vice President of Research in the University of Central Florida’s Office of Research and Commercialization, discussed the need for better-supported university technology transfer programs. George McLendon, Provost and Professor of Chemistry at Rice University, discussed his institution’s efforts to combine state, federal, and private resources to create an “innovation ecosystem.”
Following the witnesses’ prepared remarks, senators asked them a wide variety of questions. Nelson wanted to know blockbuster examples of technological or market successes driven by nanotechnology in the last decade. Mirkin discussed medical diagnostic tools that are able to detect diseases at much earlier stages, making treatment possible where it previously would not have been. Romine said that IBM had used tools available at NIST’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology to cut six months off the development time for new supercomputing technologies.
Building on Mirkin’s example, Rockefeller asked for further information on the use of nanotechnology to detect and treat cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Mirkin said that nanotechnology makes targeting brain tumors possible because nanoparticles can be designed to pass through the blood-brain barrier and to selectively target tumor cells. Pelecky followed up, saying that as the delivery particles for chemotherapy become more targeted, side effects can be greatly reduced.
Picking up on the responses to Rockefeller’s questions, Boozman raised the question of safety, particularly with regard to molecules crossing the blood-brain barrier. Mirkin replied that small size does not carry any inherent dangers, and that the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies are taking a proactive look at how to screen nanotechnology-enable products for safety.
Changing topics, Rockefeller asked if we are spending enough money on translational research, noting that only two percent of federal investment goes to that purpose. He argued that countries like Japan and Germany essentially take American basic research and turn it into commercial products. Mirkin responded that this is less of an issue in the last twenty years because patent law gives protection to those doing the basic research. McLendon cautioned against taking investment away from basic research, saying that using up all of our “seed corn” would be a flawed strategy. Instead, he argued for better incentives to draw private capital into the commercialization process.
Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) also expressed his belief that a better job needs to be done to turn basic research in nanotechnology into commercial products. He noted that he has introduced legislation that would provide a 25 percent tax credit to angel investors who invest in early stage technologies.
Pryor and Nelson also questioned witnesses further on how well public-private partnerships are working within the NNI. Romine said that the track record has been strong and referred to the significant private investments that have been leveraged. McLendon described an ongoing program at Rice that matches federal dollars with Lockheed Martin dollars. Lockheed scientists investigate ongoing work and figure out how to integrate new materials developed through basic research into marketable products.
Towards the end of the hearing, Boozman asked Mirkin, who had been a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellow prior to becoming a professor, what effect his federally funded fellowship had on his later success. Mirkin explained that it had a large impact because it was at NSF that he developed an interest in nanoscience and was able to start his career. Ultimately, Mirkin said, his federal fellowship “is in large part the reason I’m here today talking to you.”
Boozman and Nelson closed the hearing by congratulating the witnesses on their many successes and thanking them for their illuminating testimony.