White House and Congress Show Support for Nanotechnology
"It's amazing what one can do just by putting atoms where you want them." - Richard Smalley, Winner of 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
One area of research that is beginning to come in for special interest from the White House and Congress is nanotechnology the study and application of materials, devices, and systems on a scale of nanometers (10-9, or 10 to the negative ninth power, meters). At this scale researchers are learning to manipulate individual atoms, an ability that experts testified could lead to revolutions in materials design, manufacturing, medicine, electronics, energy, and numerous other fields of human endeavor.
The President's science advisor, Neal Lane, has rated nanotechnology one of the government's 11 inter-agency R&D priorities for the purpose of planning the FY 2001 budget. On June 22, four witnesses extolled the promise of R&D in the nanometer range before a supportive House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research.
Basic Research Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) and Ranking Minority Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) both commented on the enormous potential of nanoscale research. The federal government is currently spending about $230 million per year in this area, with NSF, DOD and DOE as the key players, Smith reported. Noting that "a significant amount of research is currently underway in Europe and Japan," Smith questioned whether the U.S. effort was sufficient, and what the federal and private sector roles should be.
A nanometer is "truly a magical unit of length," said Eugene Wong, NSF's Assistant Director for Engineering. "It is the point where the smallest man-made things meet nature." He discussed the benefits of being able to change the properties of a material without changing its chemical composition, by manipulating materials atom-by-atom. Instead of discovering new phenomena by accident, he said, scientists can now look for them systematically or design them to order.
Paul McWhorter of Sandia National Laboratories compared the promise of nanotechnology to the first silicon revolution in microelectronics, saying this "second silicon revolution" had the potential to surpass the impact of the first. "Twentieth century technologies...pale in comparison with what will be possible" when scientists can build things one atom at a time, said Rice University's Richard Smalley, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He gave a personal example, citing the chemotherapy he is undergoing as a "blunt tool" that kills other cells in the body beside cancer cells; nanotechnology, he said, would allow specially engineered drugs to target just cancer cells.
The witnesses agreed the federal government has to play a fundamental role in funding nanotechnology R&D. They noted that, although many future applications were apparent, much basic research was needed before companies could be assured of returning a profit from investment in the field. Estimating that the time horizon to develop a product could be 10 or 20 years, Smalley said a private investor would be "a fool" to start up a company at this stage. Ralph Merkle of the XEROX Palto Alto Research Center added that developing the potential of nanotechnology would be a major project, like developing nuclear weapons or lunar rockets. He pointed out that cooperative research is needed across many disciplines, including scanning probe microscopy, supramolecular chemistry, protein engineering, self assembly, robotics, materials science, computational chemistry, self replicating systems, physics, and computer science. Government funding, he said, is both "essential and appropriate:" while benefits of nanoscience will flow across many companies and the entire economy, few companies can afford the resources and time - years to decades - needed.
McWhorter agreed that "the nation must maintain a leadership role." Private companies would invest substantially when government funding has mitigated the risk, he said; federal investment will act as a catalyst for private investment. NSF is taking the lead on funding the basic research and infrastructure, Wong said, as well as coordinating the research effort across departments and agencies. He felt the NSF budget of approximately $90 million per year was not enough, and said he was "eagerly advocating" for more support in the FY 2001 budget.
The witnesses also concurred on the usefulness of international cooperation, agreeing that if the U.S. tried to isolate its research, it would lose intellectual vigor. Wong praised the current system of international competition and cooperation at the same time, saying it was "a boon to the whole field."
"Those of us who heard this testimony," Smith concluded, "will be flag bearers" for nanotechnology. "It seems obvious," he added, that there is enough information on the benefits "to aggressively pursue research in this area" in the FY 2001 budget process.
Just a month before Smith's hearing, on May 20, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a press release on guidance given to heads of federal departments and agencies for the FY 2001 budget planning process. The guidance identifies nanotechnology as one of 11 "R&D areas that are important national efforts requiring coordinated investments across several agencies." These R&D priorities are to be "incorporated in department and agency budget submissions to OMB in early September." The President's National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) will meet later in September "to review the S&T investment portfolio and help ensure the strongest possible R&D budget proposal for FY 2001."
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