National Nanotechnology Initiative Signaling Focus on Collaboration ‘Ecosystem’

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Publication date: 
28 November 2016

The National Nanotechnology Initiative has released the triennial update of its strategic plan. Among its new features, the plan now stresses the need to further develop the nanotechnology community’s collaboration “ecosystem” and to promote the development and sharing of data, computer models, and simulations.

On Nov. 18, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology heard from a panel discussing the triennial review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) released in September by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. As reported in FYI #116, the review emphasized the need for increased strategic focus in NNI’s efforts, particularly where such focus can spur technology commercialization.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 31, the NNI released its triennial update to its strategic plan, as required by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003. The purpose of the strategic plan is to provide a general “framework” to guide and harmonize the actions of the federal departments and agencies participating in the initiative. While the plan does not prescribe policy, new language in the updated version can suggest what issues and trends the initiative’s leaders deem important for future policy decision making. NNI issued its last plan update in February 2014.

Strategic plan envisions robust R&D 'ecosystem'

Although the new version of the strategic plan is largely consistent with the 2014 version, the concluding section now argues that NNI has reached an important moment in its history:

The NNI is at a crossroads. Nanotechnology has evolved from an area of fundamental research to an enabling technology. Recognizing this evolution, the NNI has expanded its focus from support for fundamental research on nanomaterials and devices to include new efforts focused on utilizing these materials and devices to develop nanotechnology-enabled systems. The next phase of the NNI will require a robust ecosystem that supports fundamental discovery, fosters innovation, and promotes the transfer of nanotechnology discoveries from lab to market, along with continued efforts to ensure the safety of [nanotechnology-enabled products] across their entire life cycle.

While prior versions of the plan have similarly stressed the need to foster better coordination, the latest version’s emphasis on the term “ecosystem”—and its dedication of an entire section to describing NNI’s “collaboration ecosystem”—underlines an increased interest in how coordination should be promoted.

One key issue in promoting coordination is in better integrating the work of the nanotechnology community with the work of other R&D communities. Speaking to PCAST on Nov. 18, Celia Merzbacher, who chaired the National Academies’ triennial review of NNI, remarked that “there are a lot of government programs that are not nano-specific that can help achieve the goals of the NNI, for instance, to advance nanotechnology into practical use.” Her review committee, therefore, stressed that NNI should continue to identify such programs and encourage collaboration with them.


Figure 2.2 from the National Academies triennial review

Figure 2.2 from the National Academies triennial review, illustrating the array of government programs, none of which are specific to nanotechnology, that can facilitate the transition of nanotechnology-enabled products from low to high technology readiness levels (TRLs) and ultimately to commercialization.

(Image reproduced with permission from the National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of the National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.)

Figure 2.2, Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, 2016. Permission received for FYI 2016 148 only, from Barbara Murphy, permissions coordinator, National Academies Press, Ref. 11281600

In the new strategic plan, a similar emphasis on coordinating with teams and institutions beyond the nanotechnology community is reflected in increased use of the term “nanotechnology-enabled” rather than “nanotechnology-based” to describe products that exploit nanotechnology without necessarily emerging directly from advances in the field.

More concretely, the updated strategic plan also highlights NNI’s initiation of using “Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges” to build collaborations and partnerships within the “U.S. innovation ecosystem.” NNI issued its first grand challenge in 2015, dedicated to developing fundamentally new computer designs. To address this challenge, NNI anticipates that nanotechnology researchers will need to foster new collaborations with researchers in fields such as computing, including those working under the aegis of the National Strategic Computing Initiative and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The strategic plan indicates that NNI may issue additional grand challenges in the future.

Another area where NNI’s interest in ecosystem development appears pertinent is in its management of Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (NSIs), which focus R&D investments across agencies on specific problems. The updated strategic plan notes that NNI’s decision last year to discontinue its NSI for solar energy was based on its perception that a “robust research ecosystem” had been successfully established in the area. This year, NNI replaced it with a new NSI dedicated to improving the sustainability of global water supplies. There is not, however, full agreement that community development is the best criteria on which to base such decisions. Notably, the National Academies review warned that, without firmer metrics for technical progress, “funding for NSI topics will be more difficult to secure within the NNI agencies and advances will be more serendipitous and less assured.”

Simulation and data analytics now an explicit focus

Another new feature in the 2016 strategic plan update is the specific addition of NNI’s support for computer modeling, simulation, and data analytics in the initiative’s goals. The plan explains:

Computational modeling and simulation tools are becoming increasingly more efficient and accurate in predicting the behavior and performance of nanoscale materials and nanotechnology-enabled devices. These tools can reduce the time, effort, and cost required to develop robust synthesis and processing approaches to produce nanomaterials and nanomaterial-based products, improve nanomanufacturing methods, and focus testing and evaluation efforts on those tests that are the best representation of performance. Data analytics tools can help process the large amounts of data generated from the testing and evaluation of nanoscale materials and nanotechnology-enabled devices and can identify trends that can be exploited to optimize the properties and performance of these materials and devices.

NNI has supported the development of computational methods and infrastructure from its beginning, but the strategic plan’s new emphasis on data analytics, modeling, and simulation is consistent with emerging emphases in other strategic government programs such as the Materials Genome Initiative. NNI’s strategic plan update also identifies fostering the sharing of data and computer code as a goal, while recognizing that such sharing represents “a cultural transition for many scientists and engineers.” The plan points to U.S.-European Union Communities of Research and the Nanotechnology Knowledge Infrastructure Signature Initiative, both initiated in 2012, as model efforts in developing “community-focused informatics.”

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