White House Report Recommends Nanotechnology Grand Challenges

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Publication date: 
7 November 2014


A new report issued by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology urges coordinated federal action to support the development of commercial products based on discoveries from nanotechnology research. Among the report’s recommendations is the establishment of a series of Grand Challenges to focus future nanotechnology R&D.

The “Report to the President and Congress on the Fifth Assessment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative” was approved by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in late August and was released to the public in October. The 88-page report was prepared by a thirteen member Working Group co-chaired by PCAST members J. Michael McQuade of United Technologies Corporation and Mark Gorenberg of Zetta Venture Partners. Eleven members were outside advisors from national laboratories, universities, and corporations.

Early in the report it states:

The primary conclusion of our 2014 PCAST review is that the United States will only be able to claim the rewards that come from investing in nanotechnology research and sustaining an overarching Federal initiative if the Federal interagency process, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the agencies themselves transition their nanotechnology programmatic efforts beyond supporting and reporting on basic and applied research and toward building program, coordination, and leadership frameworks for translating the technologies into commercial products.

The federal government has spent approximately $20 billion on nanotechnology R&D in the last thirteen years. During the August PCAST telephone conference McQuade noted that annual nanotechnology spending has fallen by about 20% since 2010. The Department of Defense is a major funder of nanotechnology research, with much of the funding decline was experienced by DoD. For FY 2015 the Administration requested $1.537 billion for nanotechnology R&D, approximately the same as current year funding. Twenty-seven federal agency units receive federal nanotechnology funding.

The report focused on how future nanotechnology R&D funding should be spent. Twelve recommendations were made; the Working Group identified the following as the “three most important recommendations”:

1. While certain elements of the current Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives framework should be maintained, the primary active program‐management structure should be driven by the Federal and OSTP commitment to the concept of nanotechnology Grand Challenges.

2. We reiterate the need for an ongoing, separate standing committee of cross‐sector nanotechnology experts that advises, but does not evaluate, the nanotechnology activities of the U.S. Government. We also iterate the need for a functional interagency process via the National Science and Technology Council, the Committee on Technology, and the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee that is able to make cross‐agency funding priorities when needed to address nanotechnology Grand Challenges.

3. We reiterate the need to assess Federal nanotechnology research and commercialization funding through a more formal system of metrics.

The report defines a Grand Challenge as “a large, outwardfacing effort with a specific, measurable goal. A Grand Challenge has a welldefined technical goal with a storytelling case that inspires different sectors to invest in achieving the goal. Most Grand Challenges address an issue of significantsocietal impact.” The report continues: “A nanotechnology Grand Challenge should be audacious but achievable and stimulate the network of activities that will drive scientific ideas to commercial nanotechnology and catalyze new discovery for technologies of the future.” Examples of Grand Challenges include “nano-enabled desalination of seawater,” “nano-enabled solid-state refrigeration,” nano 3D printing for manufacturing, and a nanoscale therapeutic for a major cancer type.

In a cover letter addressed to President Obama from PCAST Co-Chairs John Holdren and Eric Lander they state:

The transition toward commercialization can have implications for drug delivery, energy technology, smart sensors, clean water, quantum computing, and more. The United States can continue to lead in research and development, and the time is now to ensure the Nation will lead in the commercialization of nanotechnology, as well.