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FYI Number 106: September 26, 2002

New Nanotechnology Bill Introduced

A bill (S. 2945) that would expand on the current National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was passed unanimously by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on September 19, only two days after its introduction by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). A September 17 hearing by Wyden's Science, Technology, and Space Subcommittee generated plaudits for the existing national program and support for Wyden's bill, but concerns about relations between industry and universities and the effect on transferring government-funded research to the marketplace.

The current multi-agency NNI program was established by President Clinton in FY 2001. Wyden complimented the existing program but added that the purpose of his legislation is to "do a bit better." S. 2945 would enhance the coordination, funding, and management of federal nanotechnology R&D. It would authorize establishment of a presidential advisory panel, a national coordinating office, and a biennial National Research Council (NRC) survey of international progress in the field, and would support long-term research, interdisciplinary research centers and infrastructure, transfer of technology to industry and greater consideration of the societal, ethical, education and workforce issues related to nanotechnology.

Richard Russell, OSTP Associate Director for Technology, expressed the Administration's strong support for nanotechnology R&D, remarking that a 17 percent increase has been requested for FY 2003, and it has been identified as one of six federal R&D priorities for the 2004 fiscal year. The other witnesses praised NNI for bringing recognition and legitimacy to the field; Mark Modzelewski of the NanoBusiness Alliance termed it "an incredible instance of government outpacing the imagination of the private sector." However, he added, as early nanotechnology research moves to commercialization, federal support must be extended to address issues of technology transfer, scaling, integration, intellectual property, and workforce training and safety: "We are now at a crossroads where we must expand [the program's] reach from the lab to the boardroom." He called S. 2945 "a vital and timely bill that builds on the work of the NNI." Nathan Swami of Virginia's Initiative for Nanotechnology also enthusiastically endorsed the bill but recommended greater integration of state and regional entities.

Samuel Stupp of Northwestern University, who chaired a recent NRC review of the NNI ("Small Wonders, Endless Frontiers,", reported that his committee was impressed with the leadership of the NNI and the merit of the research funded to date. The committee's recommendations for strengthening the program include establishing an independent advisory board, an overarching strategic plan, and performance metrics; increasing investments at the intersection of nanotechnology and biology; focusing more on societal implications; and nurturing both interagency and public-private partnerships.

The witnesses discussed the need for a well-trained, interdisciplinary U.S. workforce to take advantage of the opportunities in nanotechnology, and called for greater attention to the applications of nanotechnology to medical science. The issue that generated the greatest concern was the ability of universities to work with companies to move research results to industry. To stay ahead internationally, the U.S. needs to leverage the contributions of all sectors, Stan Williams of Hewlett-Packard said, but "relations between universities and corporations have rarely been worse." He commented that it was easier for Hewlett-Packard to start up a research collaboration with a university in Russia or France than with one "a few miles down the road." Modzelewski called the process of technology transfer from academia to industry "impossible at worst, arduous at best." Williams felt the Bayh-Dole Act encourages universities, when granting intellectual property licenses, to favor small companies (often started by faculty members) over larger companies that have supported much of the research, noting that "a lot of large companies have been burned a lot of times." Others agreed that many universities were difficult to bargain with, but Stupp cautioned that the concept of university-industry collaboration was "still pretty young" and would be worked out over time. This was clearly an issue of abiding interest to Wyden, who recommended a multi-sector task force to investigate it. Russell responded that the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has been asked to look into the concerns.

With the nanotechnology initiative, Wyden concluded, "here's a chance for a model for our times. We can use it over and over again if we do it right." The bill is cosponsored by Senators George Allen (R-VA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Joseph Lieberman (D- CT), Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). No companion bill for S. 2945 has yet been introduced in the House.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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