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FYI Number 33: March 24, 2002

House Science Committee Chairman Boehlert on Nanotechnology

Earlier this month, Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) addressed a nanotechnology conference at Brookhaven National Laboratory. In his remarks, the chairman spoke of significant congressional support for nanotechnology, DOE's image, balance in the federal research portfolio, the outlook on science funding, and the need for researchers to become more vocal. Selections from Boehlert's remarks follow:

"[W]hat I've come to understand is that in science and technology, few things could actually be bigger than nanotechnology - in terms of its potential to revolutionize scientific and engineering research, improve human health and bolster our economy."

"Perhaps equally remarkable is that the notion of nanotechnology and its potential impact have caught on with the public and their representatives in Congress. This is no mean achievement; manipulating atoms is easier than manipulating public attitudes. And I don't really know how the public profile of nanotechnology was achieved. But it is a term that - even though few may actually understand what it encompasses - it's a term that one can utter in Washington and receive nods of approval.

"That obviously has practical consequences that will benefit all of you. There is broad, bipartisan support in Washington these days for investing in scientific research, and broad agreement that nanotechnology is a priority field. This is reflected in the President's budget, which names nanotechnology as one of just four national, interagency R&D priorities - the others being anti-terrorism research, information technology and global climate change - high-profile, essential areas of research, not exactly bad company to keep.

"The even better news is that the importance of nanotechnology is not just recognized in principle; it's matched by funding proposals.

"The President proposes increasing nanotechnology research spending across all the federal agencies by 17 percent, including a 53 percent increase in the Department of Energy - that's in a federal budget in which proposed domestic spending as a whole barely keeps up with inflation. That's quite a show of support.

"But, of course, I wouldn't start popping champagne corks just yet. The release of the President's budget is just the beginning of the federal spending process, and that process will continue through the summer and into the fall. Support for science in Congress is broad, as I said, but it isn't always deep. While virtually no one opposes science spending in principle, it can get sacrificed to pay for other priorities, and, frankly, that can be especially true when it comes to the Department of Energy (DOE).

"While DOE's Office of Science has a budget of about the same scale as the National Science Foundation (NSF), it isn't nearly as well known or as broadly supported. There are many reasons for that, including skepticism about DOE as an entity and some problems with the particular spending bill that funds DOE.

"But regardless of the cause, what it means is that all of you need to do a better job of telling people in my position just how much is at stake in funding you. And that message has to go out to more than the usual suspects - people like me or folks who represent districts that have national labs. You need to talk to Members of Congress and Senators who have no reason to be worried about DOE as a matter of course.

"And you have a great story to tell, especially about nanotechnology. A field like nanotechnology that is brimming with both intellectual excitement and practical, economic potential is exactly the kind of field that Congress likes to support. Similarly, research centers that bring together university and industry researchers; that marry public and private funding and researchers to conduct basic research that has broad applicability - that's exactly what we're looking for. But we're not going to find out about it unless people like you let us know.

"It's especially important to educate people about nanotechnology now, at a time when industry does not invest in the same kind of long-term research it did when the United States had more of a monopoly on scientific breakthroughs. I don't need to tell you that we cannot rely exclusively today - if we ever could - on the Bell Labs of the world to develop the transistors of tomorrow. More than ever breakthroughs of that magnitude require public support.

"And talking about nanotechnology can also help us begin to address a larger - and I fear, growing problem in the federal budget, one that you're all probably painfully familiar with - the disproportionate share of federal R&D funding that goes to health research. Let me tell you exactly what I said at our Committee's hearing last month on the proposed R&D budget for next year. And I should say that our lead witness at that hearing was Brookhaven's former director, Jack Marburger, who is a wonderful guy and is now, as you know, doing a terrific job as the President's Science Advisor.

"I said, 'I have long supported, and continue to support the doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But the NIH alone cannot undergird our economic health or even improve human health. Yet the NIH budget is now larger than that of the rest of the civilian science agencies put together, and just the increase in the NIH budget is larger than the research budget of NSF.'

"So we have to redress that imbalance. It's fine - indeed necessary - to pick priority areas and fund them more than others, but we're getting close to the point that we're funding health to the exclusion of other areas. And there's one especially critical reason for that: health researchers have done a great job of explaining what's at stake for us, individually and collectively, in their research. If there's any area of the physical sciences and engineering that has as clear a story to tell, nanotechnology is probably it.

"In fact, I don't think it's much of a stretch to see the national effort in nanotechnology as analogous to the space race of the 1960s. Once again, we are setting up a focused effort to make rapid advances while competing nations - economic competitors in this case - are breathing down our necks. Only this time our goal is not to explore outer space, but rather inner space.

"So you have a great story to tell; but you are the ones who need to tell it.

"What I can promise, as I did at the start, is that you will have my support, and I will help you tell it. And I already know how I want the story to end - with a healthy inter-agency program of nanotechnology research that includes a DOE Nanotechnology Center at Brookhaven National Laboratory."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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