"To date, the NNI [National Nanotechnology Initiative]
has helped to bring the United States to a global leadership position
in nanotechnology, but that status is being aggressively challenged
by other nations, and the United States cannot rest on its laurels."
- PCAST report
The House Subcommittee on Research has held two hearings to review
the conclusions of a nanotechnology report prepared by the President's
Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The report, Members
of the subcommittee, and witnesses (including PCAST Co-Chair Floyd Kvamme)
were in agreement that the United States is the leader in nanotechnology,
but all warned that other countries could overtake the U.S.
The report was mandated by the 21st Century National Nanotechnology
Research and Development Act which became law in late 2003. One of the
act's provisions required an external advisory panel to review the Federal
nanotechnology program at least every two years. The first report was
issued in mid-May and is entitled, "The National Nanotechnology
Initiative at Five Years: Assessment and Recommendations of the National
Nanotechnology Advisory Panel." The 50-page report is both
comprehensive and highly readable, and can be accessed under "Reports"
PCAST members discussed and approved the report during a meeting last
The federal government will have invested $4.0 billion in nanotechnology
from FY 2001 through September of this year. The Administration has
requested more than $1 billion for nanotechnology research in FY 2006
in the budgets of 11 federal agencies. Nanotechnology has consistently
been described as high priority research by both the Clinton and Bush
The report addressed four questions: "where do we stand?";
"is this money well spent and the program well managed?";
"are we addressing societal concerns and potential risks?";
and "how can we do better?" PCAST concluded that the U.S.
"is the acknowledged leader in nanotechnology R&D," with
total annual public and private investment of $3 billion, roughly one-third
of worldwide spending. The U.S. ranks first in the number of start-up
companies, patents, and publications in nanotechnology. Federal money
spent on expanding knowledge and in the construction of infrastructure
"has been both appropriate and wise," the report concludes,
adding "the economic payoffs over the long term are likely to be
substantial." The report acknowledges societal concerns and potential
risks, and states that the government "is moving deliberately to
identify, prioritize, and address such concerns."
In answering the fourth question - "how can we do better?"
- the report categorizes its conclusions in four areas. It called for
steps to increase technology transfer, noting the important role that
states are playing, and the need to improve knowledge management. In
an important statement, the report concludes:
"Although ultimate commercialization of nanotechnology
is desirable and to be supported, the NNI [National Nanotechnology
Initiative] must remain mindful that its primary focus is on developing
an understanding of the novel properties that occur at the nanoscale
and the ability to control matter at the atomic and molecular level.
While we all want the United States to benefit economically from nanotechnology
as quickly as possible, it is critically important that the basic
intellectual property surrounding nanotechnology be generated and
reside within this country. Those who hold this knowledge will own'
commercialization in the future."
The report cautions that U.S. leadership is slipping, explaining "the
trends in all categories - investment, publications, and patents - show
steady erosion in the percentage lead of the United States over time."
Also under the category of "how can we do better?," was a
call for clearer regulations regarding nanotechnology's environmental
and health implications. Again, the report provides an apt statement:
"Nanotechnology products should not be immune from regulation,
but such regulation must be rational and based on science, not perceived
fears." In addition, the report calls attention to the need
for better national education/workforce preparation, and research on
nanotechnology's societal implications.
The report was the subject of two hearings by the House Subcommittee
on Research, chaired by Bob Inglis (R-SC). Members and witnesses generally
agreed with the report's findings. One common observation was fear that
the U.S. was not producing enough scientists and engineers. Kvamme addressed
this at some length, saying "we've got to change that perception
that there are not jobs for these people . . . we have to remove that
notion that we don't need more engineers, we don't need more scientists."
He suggested that financial incentives be considered to attract more
students into engineering and science, calling predicted shortages of
such professionals his biggest worry in maintaining U.S. leadership
Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics