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Foresight Update 42

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


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NSF Call for Research Proposals in Nanoscale Science and Engineering

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has issued a formal Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking grant requests for "a program on collaborative research in the area of nanoscale science and engineering." The program is one of the first results of a more focused research and development funding policy for the U.S. federal government that is envisioned for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The NSF has been designated as the lead agency in implementing of the goals and objectives of the NNI. The deadline for submission of proposals is 2 November 2000.

While it remains to be seen what types of research are actually funded under the program, the language of the solicitation is striking in its broad vision of nanotechnology and its potential applications:

Nanotechnology is the creation and utilization of functional materials, devices and systems with novel properties and functions that are achieved through the control of matter atom by atom, molecule by molecule or at the macromolecular level. A revolution has begun in science, engineering and technology, based on the ability to organize, characterize, and manipulate matter systematically at the nanoscale. Far-reaching outcomes for the 21st century are envisioned in both scientific knowledge and a wide range of technologies in most industries, healthcare, conservation of materials and energy, biology, environment and education. Nanoscale science and engineering (NSE) underpin innovation in critical areas ranging from manufacturing to medicine. Opportunities have opened as new tools permit for fundamental discoveries and technology use. Outstanding benefits have resulted from initial applications. A special challenge and opportunity is restructuring teaching at all levels to include NSE concepts, and nurturing the scientific and technical workforce of the next century.

Formidable challenges remain, however, in the areas of fundamental understanding, device design, system design and architecture, manufacturing, and system integration and deployment before the potential of nanotechnology becomes a reality.

The program described in the solicitation is intended as one component in the U.S. government response to those "formidable challenges." The NNI, it states, "will ensure that investments in this area are made in a coordinated and timely manner, and will accelerate the pace of revolutionary discoveries now occurring in NSE. Collaborative research among physicists, chemists, biologists, materials scientists, geoscientists, mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers will be necessary."

According to the request, the goal of this program is to "catalyze synergistic science and engineering research in emerging areas of nanoscale science and technology," and will award research grants that focus on "six high-risk/high-reward research and education areas, where special opportunities exist for fundamental studies in nanoscale science and engineering." The six focus areas are:

  • Biosystems at the Nanoscale
  • Nanoscale Structures, Novel Phenomena, & Quantum Control
  • Nanoscale Devices and System Architecture
  • Nanoscale Processes in the Environment
  • Multi-scale, Multi-phenomena Theory, Modeling and Simulation at the Nanoscale
  • Societal and Education Implications of Scientific and Technological Advances on the Nanoscale

This particular solicitation is aimed at collaborative research programs, rather than individual investigators and their supporting laboratories. The initiative will support the following types of collaborative research and education activities:

  • Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Teams (NIRT)
  • Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers (NSEC)
  • Nanoscale Exploratory Research (NER)

Each of these modes of support is described in great detail in the RFP document. It also details the requirements for the goals and structures of such collaborative research and education efforts; requirements for eligibility; award information (such as the size, duration and scheduling of the grants); instructions for the preparation and submission of proposals for each type of program; and information on the proposal review process.

However, as the document also states, individual investigator research in nanoscale science and engineering will continue to be supported in the relevant Programs and Divisions outside of this solicitation. Much of the research that NSF supports in nanoscale science and engineering will be done by individual investigators. In addition, it is anticipated that existing programs for NSF centers and facilities, the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeships, Combined Research and Curriculum Development, and SBIR/STTRs will also support research in this general area. An example: the University of Washington (Seattle) has established a doctoral-level program in nanotechnology, which will initially be funded by a $2.7 million grant from the Integrative Graduate Education Research Training program (see related story in this issue).

As the RFP itself states, funding for this type of broad scale R&D work is likely to play an increasingly important role in the development of nanotechnology in the coming months and years: "The pace of revolutionary discoveries we are currently witnessing in nanoscience and technology is expected to accelerate greatly in the next decade. This will have profound implications on existing technologies and could result in the development of completely new technologies, improvements in health, the conservation of materials and energy, and a sustainable environment. Awards made in response to this solicitation will contribute to such future advancements."

For more information

An Adobe Acrobat verstion of the full document outlining the request can be found on the web.

For general information on the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, go to http://www.nsf.gov/nano or http://www.nano.gov


Foresight Update 42 - Table of Contents

 

White House Issues Implementation Plan for National Nanotechnology Initiative

The National Science and Technology Council, a cabinet-level advisory body chaired by the President, has issued an implementation plan for the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which President Clinton called for in his FY2001 budget request. (For details on the NNI proposal, see Update 40, and coverage of the response among federal agencies and Congress in the "Media Watch" column in Update 41.)

The report was prepared by the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Technology, Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science Engineering and Technology (NSET). This new NSET Subcommittee succeeds the Interagency Working Group on Nanoscience, Engineering, and Technology (IWGN) as the primary interagency coordination mechanism.

The implementation plan outlines the funding of the recommended R&D priorities by the participating agencies:

"A coherent approach will be developed for funding the critical areas of nanoscience and engineering, establishing a balanced and flexible infrastructure, educating and training the necessary workforce, and promoting partnerships to ensure that these collective research activities provide a sound and balanced national research portfolio. By facilitating coordination and collaboration among agencies, the NNI will maximize the Federal government's investment in nanotechnology and avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts."

According to the report, the NNI will be managed by the National Science and Technology Council's (NSTC) Committee on Technology (CT), composed of senior-level representatives from the Federal government's R&D departments and agencies. The Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) will coordinate the multiagency nanoscale R&D programs, including the NNI. NSET will coordinate planning, budgeting, implementation, and review of the NNI to ensure a broad and balanced initiative.

Under the NNI, each agency will invest in R&D projects that support its mission as well as NNI goals. While each agency will consult with NSET, the agency retains control over how it will allocate resources based on the availability of funding. Each agency will use its own methods for inviting and evaluating proposals, and will evaluate its NNI research activities according to its own policies and procedures.

A National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) will be established to serve as the secretariat to the NSET Subcommittee, providing day-to-day technical and administrative support. The NNCO will support NSET in the preparation of multiagency planning, budget, and assessment documents. The NNCO will be the point of contact on Federal nanotechnology activities for government organizations, academia, industry, professional societies, foreign organizations, and others to exchange technical and programmatic information. In addition, the NNCO will develop and make available printed and other material as directed by the NSET Subcommittee, as well as maintain the NNI Web Site.

The entire document, National Nanotechnology Initiative: The Initiative and Its Implementation Plan, is available as an Acrobat PDF file.


Foresight Update 42 - Table of Contents

 

A Foresight Profile: Richard H. Smith, II
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Profile and interview by Richard P. Terra

Richard H. Smith, IISince 1978, Foresight Senior Associate Richard Smith has been examining the future of science and technology. He is currently Director of Forecasts in Science, Technology, and Engineering at Coates and Jarratt, Inc., a Washington, DC futures think tank; there he assists the firm's clients establish long-term (5-50 years) strategic plans by acquiring a solid understanding of the history and current state of an issue and then conducting a thorough analysis of forces and trends that can illuminate probable future trajectories. Dick gives presentations and conducts workshops on science and technology policy, strategic and tactical planning, and the future of health care, biomedical research, and information technologies. His specific expertise includes strategic planning, futures scenario development, technology conception, curriculum development and delivery, healthcare management, telemedicine, research initiatives, nanotechnology and biotechnology policy, and strategic alliance formulation. As a professional futurist, and an analyst of science and technology policy, Dick has kept a keen eye on nanotechnology-related developments in the nation's capital.

We asked Dick Smith to share a few of his observations:

Update: How did you come to develop your interest in nanotechnology, and what led you to focus your interests on the policy implications?

RHS: About eight years ago, I happened upon a copy of Unbounding the Future in a local bookstore. The dust cover looked quite interesting, so I bought the book and took it home. I read Unbounding from start to finish, something I don't often do. It resonated strongly with me. I had lately become discouraged by the decades-long absence of real advances in technology—except in the then embryonic biotech field. Unbounding suggested that we might be on the verge of some pretty incredible breakthroughs. Since I wasn't a hard scientist (I was a research administrator at the time), I wasn't shackled by an understanding of the complexity of the tasks ahead or how long it might take to get there. But as a visionary statement, Unbounding seemed to me to be a call to arms of sorts—a challenge to the science and technology communities that business as usual was no longer going to be accepted. There were problems to be solved, and it was high time we went about solving them. I became committed to the idea that a future nanotechnology capability was not only a logical but also a desirable outcome—whether it were 25 or 50 or 150 years from fruition. I decided to try to contribute to progress in the field.

My colleagues in the biomedical research community were not particularly receptive to something so theoretical as nanotechnology. Their federal funding was dependent on near-term success—so much so that they often wrote proposals to do last year's work so they could have money to support next year's expenses. So the researchers literally could not afford to think about decades-ahead science. I think this contributed to a closed-mindedness that is detrimental to the public interest. So, I decided to do what I could to help the field along. I couldn't do the science; politics wouldn't work because most politicians are even more averse to long-term planning than researchers. Policy seemed to be the only avenue I had available. So I took a Master's in Science and Technology Studies and became a Ph.D. candidate in order to "get a ticket to the dance." My thesis was entitled A Policy Framework for Developing a National Nanotechnology Program. It concluded with a recommendation for what looks remarkably like the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), including the need for a true technology assessment and a review of the long-range social and ethical implications.

What's your assessment of the reception the NNI is receiving in Washington, particularly in Congress? Will the program be fully funded? This year? In future years?

The NNI is totally supported by the Clinton-Gore Administration, but it is always difficult to predict funding outcomes in the legislative branch. To make predicting even harder, an election is upon us. Since there is no single state or district that will benefit the most, traditional pork barrel legislation won't be the driver. But the NNI will fund many labs and training programs, so most members of Congress will be able to claim a contribution to their political constituencies.

My intuition is that most of the NNI money will eventually be appropriated, but school is still out. As of the Labor Day break, neither house had finished its FY 2001 appropriations bills. The Senate seems to be a little more generous towards non-DoD R&D funding, but the House has funded—at least tentatively —about 90% of the NSF portion of the NNI. According to the AAAS Budget and Policy Program office "NSF should be able to boost significantly its investments as the leading agency in the Nanotechnology Initiative. NSF's portion of the multi-agency initiative is planned to go from $97 million in FY 2000 to a requested $217 million. Though the House plan would not allow for the full request, it should still allow NSF to nearly double its current investment." (For more on R&D funding progress, check out the AAAS/R&D page.

Do you have any comments on the level of awareness, and perhaps of support, for NT research among U.S. policy-makers? What's their level of understanding of the issues involved, if any?

Al Gore has been interested in nanotechnology research since he held Senate hearings on the topic in 1992, before he became Vice President. There are a few members of Congress who are aware but, for the most part, it is the members of the government science and technology community who are paying attention: people at NASA, NIST, NSF, NIH, PCAST, OSTP, etc.

Since Rick Smalley won the Nobel Prize in 1996, it seems that everyone has a nano-something. This brings-up definitional problems that are, to a degree, exacerbated by the availability of money from the NNI. The MEMS work at Sandia is not nanotechnology, but it is on the pathway. It should certainly be supported. But many projects are microtechnology posing as the now suddenly popular nanotechnology. Also, many scientists are skeptical—if not downright disparaging—about ideas that come from a long-range view of what nanotechnology could become. The money associated with the NNI will draw many players, and not all of them will have a common view of the opportunities or the problems. That's one reason why, in my humble opinion, the work on social, ethical, and legal implications is so important.

The NNI is intended to include projects and programs to examine the "societal implications" of the development of nanotechnology, but it's been suggested that it doesn't go far enough, at least in its current form, to address the military and international security implications. What's your take on this?

Actually, these topics are being considered as part of the NNI. I expect that they will also be high on the agendas of DoD and State. I disagree that the national security-oriented social issues are more urgent than others—at least for now. They clearly will need careful consideration long before any threatening nanodevices become available, but that is probably a very long way off. We have an opportunity right now to explore other important ethical and social issues like opportunity costs, macro- and micro-economic implications, relinquishment, public fears and emotional prejudices, risk management, intellectual property, early disease diagnostics, and many others. There will be a time for open debates about the most controversial issues, but hopefully not at the expense of a comprehensive look at a broad range of important questions.

Dick adds: If anybody has any other questions, I would be glad to address them. I can be reached at: rsmith@coatesandjarratt.com

Resources:

  • A short bio of Dick can be found on the Coates and Jarratt web site.
  • Dick has published numerous papers in print and on the World Wide Web on the topic of preparing scientifically, socially, and economically for the advent of molecular nanotechnology. Most of these (including his thesis) can be found at his Science,Technology, and Public Policy Web Page.

Foresight Update 42 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


From Foresight Update 42, originally published 30 September 2000.



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