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The NNI Debate of 2014

Credit: NNI at nano.gov

Just when it seemed like debate over the National Nanotechnology Initiative was a thing of the past (see Foresight’s disappointment in 2008 here), disagreements regarding re-authorization and budget cuts are prompting politicians and researchers to take a detailed look at what the program supports and what it is achieving.

Witnesses to the House Research Subcommittee hearing, held this past May, included Timothy Persons of US GAO, who spoke at Foresight’s 2014 Integration Conference (and whose work indicating shortfalls in US manufacturing and policy is highlighted in a recent Nanodot post here), and Lloyd Whitman of CNST who emphasized the great strides made in building collaborative facilities that support decentralization of technological advancement, also a key area of discussion at the Integration Conference.

Some highlights from the hearing appear in the American Institute of Physics online bulletin:

The Research Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing on May 20 during which Members examined nanotechnology research and development and discussed the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).   Both parties noted that the House of Representatives had previously passed a reauthorization of this Initiative but that the Senate did not.  There was bi-partisan interest from Members of the subcommittee to again attempt to reauthorize NNI.

Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-IN) opened the hearing by describing the development of nanomaterials and listing many products developed due to nanotechnology. “In 2013, the National Science Foundation (NSF) nanotechnology investment supported 5,000 active projects, over 30 research centers and several infrastructure networks for device development, computation, and education,” noted Bucshon as he highlighted the 150 small businesses that were funded through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Programs.  Bucshon was displeased at the President’s budget request for NSF directorates that support nanotechnology research, noting the $1.5 million decrease in the FY 2015 budget for those directorates.

Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) also noted the federal investments in nanotechnology and was interested in including recommendations from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology into the discussions about reauthorization of NNI.  Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) described a 2014 Government Accountability Office report that described challenges that the U.S. nanotechnology sector faces from international competition.  She advocated for strong sustained investments in nanotechnology and for the reauthorization of NNI.

Five witnesses testified.  Timothy Persons, Chief Scientist of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) spoke about the transfer of nanotechnology out of the laboratory into industry and how the U.S. compares internationally.  He emphasized the role of public-private partnerships but cautioned that the U.S. is lagging behind other nations in public support for nanotechnology as well as quantity of publications.

Lloyd Whitman, Interim Director of the National Nanotechnology Council and Deputy Director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology described the collaboration between the 20 federal agencies that consist of the NNI.  He noted the “major innovation enterprise” as he discussed the national strategy for nanotechnology research and development.

Keith Stevenson, Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Texas at Austin discussed the state of nanotechnology research and the possibilities for scaling such research.  He also noted the impact of programs at UT Austin which train freshman undergraduate students in nanotechnology.

Mark Hersam, Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University described the startup companies that formed out of Northwestern University.  He emphasized the need for efficiency in patent processing at the U.S. Patent and Trademark office as he drew a parallel between nanotechnology and increased  national economic growth.

Les Ivie, President and CEO of F Cubed described programs at two year institutions focused on training students to work in nanotechnology.  There is a need for two year programs in many states and he advocated for community colleges to adopt such programs.  He provided the subcommittee with a description of his work in private industry while also emphasizing the importance of NSF funding support for nanotechnology research.

Following the testimony, Bucshon asked Whitman to comment on how the U.S. can remain competitive in nanotechnology with flat or decreased funding levels.  Whitman noted that nanotechnology tends to receive competitive funding levels relative to other sciences.  Bucshon also inquired about the national approach for supporting nanotechnology research, specifically how the government should ensure environmental health and safety.  He was particularly interested in hearing more about the targeted nature of cancer treatment provided by nanotechnology.

Lipinski asked witnesses to offer recommendations for a potential reauthorization of NNI.  Whitman responded that the review and reporting requirements could be more efficient and that the schedule of the regulatory reviews could be more streamlined.  Hersam emphasized the need to broadly fund nanotechnology research, not just that research which currently shows the most promise in order to avoid “picking winners.”  Persons discussed the need for environmental health and safety as well as international standards.  Lipinski also asked about technology transfer for SBIR programs to which Hersam discussed appropriate levels of funding for each of the stages of that program.

Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) asked witnesses to comment on funding cuts for university programs, such as that of Cornell University.  Whitman answered that the NSF solicited advice on how to proceed with a program through a “Dear Colleague” letter.  Members from both parties recognized that funding cannot be “cut off then turned back on” for nanotechnology research to thrive.

Ranking Member Johnson asked about how the NNI provided support for K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs in addition to supporting workforce development programs.  Whitman described some of the programs of the agencies involved with NNI and Ivie noted the need for workers with technical associate degrees.  Ivie mentioned the success of the NSF career network in promoting STEM jobs.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics

A number of open questions come to mind, but to start with just one – is the current NNI umbrella simply too broad to be sustained through economic downturns (support of K-12 programs come to mind), or would the unintended consequences of “cherry picking”, as Whitman expressed concern about, pose a real impediment to US competitiveness in global nanotechnology R&D?
-Posted by Stephanie C

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