Potential and Problems: House Hearing on Nanotechnology

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Publication date: 
27 August 2014

“Nanotech is a true science race between the nations, and we should be encouraging the transition from research breakthroughs to commercial development.  I believe the U.S. should excel in this area.”  So stated House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Chairman Lee Terry (R-NE) at a hearing last month on nanotechnology.

This was one of a series of hearings the subcommittee has held on the theme of a Nation of Builders, described as an “initiative to promote the success of American manufacturers and to help make American manufacturing more competitive in the global marketplace.”  Earlier hearings have examined the steel, homebuilding, and aircraft manufacturing industries.

Testimony at this ninety minute hearing about nanotechnology opportunities was very positive, tempered by concerns about federal funding, international competition, tax law, and the American workforce.  There were few striking differences between the Republican and Democratic members of the subcommittee that were expressed during this hearing.

The subcommittee heard from four witnesses: one in private industry and three from universities.  “The transformative power of nanotechnology can rival the industrial revolution” Christian Binek of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln told the subcommittee.  Each of the witnesses described how nanotechnology has enabled stunning advances in areas ranging from medicine to industrial lubricants.

Much of the witnesses’ testimony and the questions from subcommittee members centered on obstacles to advances in nanotechnology in the United States.  “The decrease in federal support for university-based basic research in recent years is resulting in a serious brain drain that imperils the future of the U.S. economy as we know it,” warned James Tour of Rice University.  International competition has increased, as Milan Mrksich of Northwestern University stated: “Governments in Europe and Asia continue to make targeted investments in nanotechnology, with annual growth rates that are in the double digits and that have approached 50% in China.”  James Phillips, Chairman and CEO of NanoMech, Inc. spoke of scientific talent as “perhaps the most important driver for manufacturing competitiveness, especially in nanotechnology,” and predicted that the re-engineering of the U.S. workforce to increase STEM graduates and general STEM literacy will take ten to twenty years.  Compounding workforce difficulties are U.S.-educated foreign nationals returning to their countries of origin because of the lack of employment opportunities.   There was discussion about changing the corporate tax code to make investments in the U.S. more favorable, regulatory challenges to the commercialization of nanotechnology, and the administration of the patent system.  Also of concern was the loss of top U.S. faculty to foreign universities where opportunities – and support – are often greater.  Many of these problems are common to research in other fields.

The importance of the National Nanotechnology Initiative which was established in 2000 was discussed.  Administered within the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the NNI coordinates nanotechnology research programs in multiple federal agencies.  There are currently 11 federal departments and independent agencies supporting nanotechnology R&D.  An additional nine agencies have programs for  other nanotechnology activities, including health and safety.  Funding for these agencies is provided by individual appropriations. 

Not surprisingly, federal funding for nanotechnology was discussed.  The current (FY 2014) appropriation for all nanotechnology research and development is approximately $1.5 billion.  Total federal nanotechnology R&D funding has declined by almost 20 percent from 2010 to 2014.  Witnesses described how declining federal support has necessitated the raising of private financing, augmented by state funding.

There is no question that nanotechnology will enable great advances across a broad number of industries manufacturing many revolutionary products.  What remains a question is whether the basic research underlying these advances, the development of technology based on these advances, and the manufacture of the resulting products will be performed in the United States or in other countries.