National Nanotechnology Initiative Review Urges ‘Focus,’ Emphasizes Commercialization

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Publication date: 
20 September 2016

The National Academies has issued its latest triennial review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, focusing many of its recommendations on the need to foster commercialization. The initiative itself has released a draft of its 2016 strategic plan for public comment.

On Sept. 12, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) released a draft of its 2016 strategic plan, and is currently accepting public comments through Sept. 23. The NNI was first established in 2001 and was codified into law in 2003 by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. Among its provisions, the act requires the initiative to update its strategic plan every three years. The current plan, released in 2014, is available here.

The act also requires the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct a triennial review of the initiative. The National Academies released its latest review on Sept. 6. The review committee was chaired by Celia Merzbacher, vice president for innovative partnerships at the Semiconductor Research Corporation.

Review revisits 'Signature Initiatives' and 'Grand Challenges'

In its report, the National Academies review committee stresses the ongoing need to enhance the focus of the nation’s sprawling nanotechnology research and engineering activities.

Since 2001, federal agencies and Cabinet-level departments have invested more than $23 billion in projects ranging from basic research to technology commercialization. At present, 27 agencies are expending about $1.5 billion each year. The interagency Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee (NSET) is responsible for coordinating these agencies’ various projects and programs, and reports to the Committee on Technology of the National Science and Technology Council.

NNI funding.jpg

NNI funding, 2001–2016 and the budget request for 2017, from John F. Sargent, Jr., “Nanotechnology, A Policy Primer,” Sept. 15, 2016. 

(Image Credit – Congressional Research Service)

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The review committee notes that, traditionally, NNI spending “has been predominantly in support of research, including user facilities and equipment used by researchers,” resulting in the construction of “a diverse multidisciplinary research enterprise in universities, federal laboratories, and industry.” Now, the committee notes, the need is for a more focused effort, particularly in bridging the so-called “valley of death” that inhibits movement between research projects and technology commercialization.

The basic mechanisms that can be used to focus work have been coming into place for some years now. In 2010, the NNI began launching a series of Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (NSIs) to encourage work in particularly promising areas. However, the review committee suggests, "It can be argued ... that the full potential of the NSIs to focus the NNI agencies and others in the research community, as well as to speed advancement, has not been met.” In particular, while stating expected outcomes, the NSIs had not identified inhibiting “technical challenges” or developed programs to address them.

Notably, when NNI discontinued an NSI last year dedicated to solar energy, it did so because it deemed a robust community to have developed in the area, not because the NSI’s technical goals were met. This led the review committee to suppose that NNI may be treating “interagency interactions and community building” as the ultimate objective of the NSIs. Not endorsing that position, the review committee reiterates a recommendation in the 2013 triennial review that agencies participating in NSIs develop roadmaps and strategic goals, including ones relating to commercialization.

The review committee makes stronger recommendations concerning the nanotechnology-inspired “grand challenges” recommended in a 2014 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (see FYI 2014 #154). That report advocated the mechanism as a way of advancing NNI into a phase, dubbed NNI 2.0, that complements a new turn toward rapidly increasing revenues in commercial nanotechnology. (In its current report, the review committee cites a 2014 Lux Research report estimating that in 2013 the global nanotechnology market surpassed $1 trillion—about a quarter of it in the United States—and that it would grow to about $3 trillion by 2018.)

The first such grand challenge, initiated in October 2015, is the Grand Challenge for Future Computing, which envisions moving beyond the canonical Von Neumann computing architecture. However, the review committee notes that, if that challenge is to lead to commercial products, it will be necessary to harness expertise in areas outside the traditional bounds of nanotechnology, such as in computer science and neurobiology. The review committee therefore recommends that NSET “strengthen engagement with the leadership of other high-priority initiatives in order to determine critical nano-enabled technological dependencies” and then “focus NNI efforts to address those dependencies.” It also recommends establishing “innovation incentive prizes” to encourage and promote work on problems relating to grand challenges.

Manufacturing, infrastructure, and K–12 education highlighted

The review committee also makes a number of other more specific recommendations. In line with its special attention to commercialization, it recommends stronger support for early-stage nanomanufacturing research in order “to enable the roadmaps and goals of current advanced manufacturing programs, in particular the existing Manufacturing Innovation Institutes.” The committee also recommends that the National Institutes of Health lead the way toward scaling up the manufacture of nanomedicines.

Spotlighting risks to the nation’s “leading-edge capabilities,” the review committee also recommends that the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy “identify funding mechanisms for acquiring and maintaining state-of-the-art equipment and computational resources” for user facilities. It notes that the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology of the National Institute of Standards and Technology is the only facility that currently includes funds for instrument recapitalization as a line item in its budget. The committee also spotlights a growing need for the characterization of nanomaterials with respect to their environmental, health, and safety impacts. It recommends the development of facilities for characterization, and the expansion of NIH’s existing Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory.

Finally, the review committee assesses the ongoing need to train students in nanotechnology, but concentrates particularly on K–12 education. It explains, “With its focus on world-class research, the NNI has built a substantial academic research ecosystem that is educating future Ph.D.-level researchers for industry and academia. Nanotechnology education at levels below the university level is less widely available. As nanotechnology becomes part of more jobs, it needs to be introduced to students at younger ages.” The committee points to a pioneering effort in Virginia as a model to be followed, and urges that NNI-funded researchers and others should be required to deposit educational materials they produce at the website.

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