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PCAST Briefed on National Nanotechnology Initiative

Richard M. Jones
Number 145 - December 9, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology were briefed last month on the implementation of the council’s recommendations regarding the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).  Now in its tenth year, federal agencies participating in the NNI expend about $2 billion per year, having spent a cumulative $14 billion on nanotechnology R&D since its inception.

Office of Science and Technology Policy Director and PCAST Co-Chair John Holdren opened the November 2 meeting, remarking that the council has set a record for the number of issued or forthcoming advisory reports.  Holdren emphasized the Administration’s determination to use science and technology to strengthen the nation’s economy.  PCAST’s recommendations have guided the formulation of the Administration’s policies, he said.   Among those topics that PCAST has issued reports on are advanced manufacturing, information technology, health information technology, STEM education, and nanotechnology.  An afternoon session at this meeting featured several senior Administration officials who briefed PCAST on how the member agencies within the National Nanotechnology Initiative have implemented the recommendations in the council’s 2010 report on NNI.

NNI is an interagency effort described as follows on its website:

‘the NNI today consists of the individual and cooperative nanotechnology-related activities of 25 Federal agencies with a range of research and regulatory roles and responsibilities. Fifteen of the participating agencies have research and development (R&D) budgets that relate to nanotechnology, with the reported NNI budget representing the collective sum of these investments.

“Funding support for nanotechnology R&D stems directly from NNI member agencies, not the NNI. As an interagency effort, the NNI informs and influences the Federal budget and planning processes through its member agencies and through the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The NNI brings together the expertise needed to advance this broad and complex field -- creating a framework for shared goals, priorities, and strategies that helps each participating Federal agency leverage the resources of all participating agencies.”

Sally Tinkle, Deputy Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office was the first of four speakers in this sixty-minute briefing.  She described NNI’s response, on multiple levels, to PCAST’s recommendations.  As examples, she described an increase in the number of public-private partnerships (citing examples from the NIH and NIST), outreach to states (including a full-time employee dedicated to this effort), interactions with officials from the European Union,  better information dissemination programs, and research on health, environmental, safety, ethical, and legal matters.  NNI agencies will increase their efforts to target and accelerate sponsored research.  In all, agencies affiliated with NNI have supported 7,800 research projects in all fifty states, Tinkle said, developing an extensive network of centers, facilities, and personnel.

Carlos Pena, Director of Emerging Technology at the Office of Science and Health Coordination of the Food and Drug Administration was the second speaker.  He described FDA’s efforts to carefully protect human health while fostering the development of nanotechnology, using science-based decision making.   Among those steps it has taken is increasing training of its staff and improved coordination and cooperation with other agencies.  Pena stressed that additional research is needed on the implications of nanotechnology on human health and safety, and said new partnerships with other agencies will continue to be established.

Mihail Roco is the Senior Advisor for Nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation.  He emphasized the importance of developing partnerships, working closely with industry, and the success there has been in the fostering of spin-off companies.  PCAST’s recommendation to focus on nanotechnology research instead of production and application is being followed, he said.  Evaluation is underway to determine the outcomes from NNI’s first decade.  Roco concluded his remarks by predicting that by 2020 nanotechnology will become a general technology, similar to information technology.

The last speaker was Lew Sloter, who is with the Office of the Director, Defense Research and Engineering of the Department of Defense.  The Defense Department has been involved in the federal government’s nanotechnology effort since its inception, recognizing its important implications for national security.  Sloter emphasized how spending on nanotechnology has increased, with each branch of the military supporting basic nanotechnology research.  DOD has worked to implement PCAST’s recommendations, such as expanding outreach to the small businesses community, industry, and the public. 

Other topics covered in a concluding question-and-answer period included monthly inter-agency briefings, meetings with the European Union, products awaiting FDA approval, federal agency funding collaborations, the desirability of a multi-agency roadmap to support further development of nanotechnology, the engagement of nongovernmental stakeholders, and computational support.  While occasional concerns were expressed, on the whole PCAST members appeared satisfied that the federal government’s nanotechnology programs were moving in the right direction.  

A webcast and briefing materials of this meeting is available here.  

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics