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FYI Number 95: July 14, 2004

Department of Energy NanoSummit

"Nanoscience will make the physical sciences as sexy as the life sciences were in the last ten years," Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) predicted at a Department of Energy NanoSummit held on June 23-24. Wamp was one of the senior-level speakers at this two-day meeting in Washington, D.C. that included Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger.

There were 340 participants registered for this meeting that Secretary Abraham said he hoped would become an annual event. In his keynote address, Abraham explained the rationale for the meeting: "As policymakers look at the range of issues surrounding nanotechnology, we need the thoughtful contributions we can only get from brainstorming sessions like this one. Major questions such as the ethical and safety implications of advanced nanoscience research and the proper role of government in this research should be examined by groups such as this on a regular basis if we are to see this technology flourish." Abraham discusssed nanotechnology's potential applications, stressing the importance of basic research and the future role that six DOE nanoscience centers will play in building "intellectual capital." These labs at Oak Ridge, Berkeley, Sandia, Los Alamos, Argonne and Brookhaven will open between September 2006 and early 2008. Abraham added, "Given the potential of nanotechnology, we must not settle for second best in the race to transform the vision of this science into a reality. So I hope that when young researchers here and around the world think about working in this field, they will say to themselves, ‘The place to be is at one of America's nanoscience centers.'" He concluded, "I can't think of a challenge that is more important or more exciting than that of bringing the fruits of nanoscience to bear on the profound energy and security challenges that face this nation and the world."

Wamp's remarks centered on funding. He praised Rep. David Hobson (R-OH), chairman of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, for resisting budgetary pressures from the Yucca Mountain and water development projects, funding DOE science accounts in the FY 2005 bill over the administration's request (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/080.html.) Wamp was bullish on the impact that nanotechnology spending would have on physical science funding, saying that it "will come right back up to where it needs to be." He called it "penny-wise and pound-foolish" not to invest the comparative "nickels and dimes" that S&T funding requires. Wamp said that he was "very frustrated" that Congress was not doing very much because of this fall's election. He criticized the Office of Management and Budget, telling meeting participants that "we've got to fight hard for these critical investments." Wamp urged that researchers push Congress to make these investments.

Technology's role in international competitiveness was the central focus of Marburger's speech. He noted that more nations can compete with the United States in science and technology endeavors since less capital is required. It is "easier to get in," he said, citing China and India. The federal government necessarily must fund long term, high risk research he said, since industry is focused on short term results. The national labs can do the research that private laboratories, such as Bell Labs, once did, he added. Marburger urged that credit be given to the massive investment in the federal government makes in research, while acknowledging that a large proportion of this research is for defense.

A large part of the June 23 meeting was devoted to specific applications of nanoscience to problems such as the hydrogen economy, national security, solid state lighting, and global energy needs, as well as the ethical, social, and environmental considerations of nanoscience. Mildred Dresselhaus of MIT (and chair of AIP's Governing Board) and Scott Jorgensen of General Motors discussed the range of technological challenges reviewed in a 175-page hydrogen energy report issued last year (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2003/109.html.) One of the major points in their presentations was the importance of basic research to achieve technological breakthroughs. Small, incremental developments will not suffice, they warned. Dresselhaus said she was "feeling rather positive" about what DOE was doing.

Patricia Dehmer, who is Associate Director of the Office of Basic Energy Sciences at DOE, and Clayton Teague, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (http://www.nano.gov/html/about/nnco.html), described some of the provocative societal issues associated with nanotechnology. Hoping to reduce the kind of public anxiety that has arisen over genetically modified organisms and nuclear energy, they discussed the work that is being funded to deal with potential concerns about nanotechnology.

Two sessions discussed future global energy needs, or what Rick Smalley of Rice University called "The Terawatt Challenge." Smalley urged that energy be made the focus of the five nanoscience centers, with an annual $200 million program in energy research to attract the best scientists in DOE and universities.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3095

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