By Jeff Karoub
Small Times Staff Writer

Aug. 22, 2001 — Two new studies promise to gauge how well the U.S. government’s nanotechnology plan is doing and figure out what it needs to succeed.

A committee of the National Research Council, an independent advisory board


serving the government, met recently with officials from the U.S. Air Force and Defense Department to learn about the role of micro- and nanotechnologies in the military and how they could improve weapons systems and capabilities.

Another committee also was formed last week to launch a review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), started by former President Clinton last year. That study, which will examine the goals, investments and programs of the initiative, is scheduled to officially kick off Aug. 30 with a meeting of the committee and NNI representatives.

The Air Force study is expected to take 18 months and the review of the nanotechnology initiative should take a year.

The NNI study, the larger of the two, intends to review the current and future mission and goals of the initiative, which coordinates nanotechnology research and development among several federal agencies. The initiative also seeks to publicize nanotechnology research through workshops and on the Web, with the ultimate goal of helping to turn intellectual property into commercial products.

The research council, the operating agency of the nonprofit National Academies, enlists the nation’s top scientists, engineers and other experts — all of whom volunteer their time on committees to study specific concerns. Services primarily are requested by, and provided to, lawmakers or federal agencies.

The NNI study, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, will suggest important areas of future investment in specific areas of nanotechnology. The final report also will highlight issues that decision makers will have to deal with in the years ahead.

“We can raise questions that need to be considered by the nation’s leaders if they want the nation to remain at the forefront of nanotechnology,” said Dorothy Zolandz, the NNI study’s project director.

Questions the NRC will try to answer during its review of the national initiative include:

  • Does NNI’s research address relevant skills and knowledge to ensure that the nation will fully benefit from the technology?
  • Are the correct “seed” investments being made now to provide for future needs?
  • Is the NNI giving sufficient consideration to the social impact of developments in nanotechnology?
  • Are internal evaluation processes effective and meaningful?

The Air Force study seeks to assess the latest micro- and nanotechnology systems and determine how they will affect or improve current and future military missions. The committee also will review the Air Force’s current investments in the technology and recommend ways to improve their speed and efficiency.

The NRC is leaving more in-depth analysis to the NNI and federal government, said Dennis Chamot, associate executive director of the council’s Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences.

“The role of the NRC committees are not to do a detailed critique of every program going on in the government,” he said. “Rather, they are to offer advice on how this coordinating activity can be more effectively done.”

“From a process standpoint: I look at it as being more forward-looking.”

The NNI’s early backers thought an unbiased review would be important, according to Zolandz. She said they wanted to confirm the project was making the right investments with federal dollars as the program was getting started.

“The idea of an independent group was very appealing to them right from the start,” she said. “But it took a while for them to agree on what they wanted to look at. … The bottom line is we finalized an agreement with the National Science Foundation to carry out a review of this initiative.”

NNI officials said they are working toward several longer-term goals, such compiling a list of all government sources of nanotechnology funding, and examining what role the government should play in licensing and patents of small-tech innovations.

“The initiative at this point in time is principally looking at the science area, but … we recognize the goal of the science is investment — get things into technology,” said Jim Murday, executive secretary of the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Technology group, which oversees the NNI.

“The level of detail is growing as we get our feet more firmly on the ground.”

For now, the NNI’s Web site includes several reports on its progress and a document that outlines the initiative’s budget request for 2002, which includes breakdowns of how much each participating agency is spending.

The total NNI budget request for fiscal year 2002 is $519 million, a 23 percent increase over the $422 million approved by Congress for fiscal year 2001. The 2002 budget is working its way through Congress and will go to President Bush this fall.

Zolandz said that any time a federal agency calls on the NRC or other independent body for advice or oversight, the findings could be used for political purposes. But she believes these small tech reviews are not driven by an overt political agenda.

“I’m not a person who has her finger on the pulse of Capitol Hill, but from what I’m hearing and seeing, there’s a lot of bipartisan support … for this,” she said. “The agencies are looking for our technical input to use for their own benefit in managing the program, rather than strictly (for) political cover.”

Murday, head of the chemistry division at the Naval Research Laboratory, said the fact that President Bush’s budget calls for increase in nanotechnology funding should underscore his support for the initiative.

“The NNI had its inception under the Clinton administration, but in point of fact it’s an apolitical thing,” Murday said. “It’s an opportunity for the nation, not an opportunity for Democrats or Republicans.

“If we’re successful, everybody wins.”

Bruce Don, director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute, a part of the nonprofit think-tank RAND, said the NRC is well equipped to offer fair and objective advice from a scientific and engineering perspective. But he said it’s unlikely the studies — the NNI’s, in particular — will explore other long-term issues, such as nanotechnology’s economically disruptive potential.

For instance, he said, researchers have debated the possibility that nanostructures could one day self-assemble, or make themselves after an original is created. That would bring the marginal cost of production down to zero, an unprecedented situation in manufacturing.

“That could create monopolies … and a whole new set of rules for commerce,” he said.

The United States is not alone in evaluating its small tech efforts. The European Union (EU) convenes expert panels to review proposals and projects for which it provides funding.

The panels have been useful in offering specialized advice, as well as bringing experts together from across the continent, said Antonio Correia, an EU adviser and director of scientific projects for CMP-Cientifica, a Madrid-based “nanotechnology integrator” that consults and advises researchers, as well as coordinates scientific research for the European Union and others.

He said experts also have helped improve the pace and process of research projects, making sure they don’t become so large that they are unworkable.

“Normally we always find a solution,” he said. “Small groups are doing interesting work and producing good results, which leads to bigger projects. I think it’s an interesting way to work.”


Jeff Karoub at [email protected] or call 734-528-6291.


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