Senate Committee Optimistic About Future of Nanotechnology

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Publication date: 
1 August 2011

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.