National Research Council report
says some changes needed in NNI

WASHINGTON — A much-anticipated study of the National Nanotechnology Initiative by a prestigious science research organization concluded Monday that the federal government’s commitment to nanotechnology is generally on the right track, although some shifts must take place for the NNI to fully flower.

A committee of 16 scientists and scholars organized by the National Research Council started examining the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) last August at the request of the White House National Economic Council.

The committee championed the “leadership and level of multiagency involvement in the NNI,” singling out the National Science Foundation for cobbling together the Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) committee, a multiagency group that was instrumental in launching NNI.

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The committee concluded that “the leadership and investment strategy established by the NSET has set a positive tone for NNI.”

But there is room for improvement, the report said. It offered 10 recommendations for how to better use the NNI to benefit the nanotechnology industry.

The NNI “is a good effort and should be expanded,” said David Beebe a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Beebe sat on the National Research Council’s NNI committee.

“Clearly, nanotechnology is going to have a big impact in a lot of areas. One of the problems is it’s not like going to the moon. There is not one end-goal, one point to rally around. That makes it different to get funding. Nanotechnology is very distributed and the average person may never see it. It’ll be in all of their products, but they won’t know it exists.”

Beebe argued that the NNI should make it a priority to fund development of new instruments. “If you look at the history of science, every advance is predicated on an instrument that allows you to see something better than you could before.” He also said that the NNI should place more emphasis on life sciences research at the nanoscale and work even harder to nurture interagency collaboration.

Joint collaborations within government are difficult to set up, but they are going to be “critical,” he said. “Nanotechnology is just the scale. So you have to look across all disciplines and how it’s going to potentially impact all disciplines. We need to fund a new generation of scientists who are truly interdisciplinary, who are truly at home in multiple disciplines.”

Lydia Sohn, a Princeton University physics professor, added that a need for more interdisciplinary efforts “is the one thing I always remember popping up at every (National Research Council) meeting. I think for a first-go, the NNI was a success, but it could be much more successful if it’s open to some of the things we suggest.”

She said that the NNI has been extremely helpful to the industry because it brought people together and sparked discussions, and gave a “direction, a goal, an organization to the nano movement.”

But still, she said, there could be even more focus. She singled out a recommendation in the report that called for establishment of an advisory board to the NSET.

Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, an industry trade group, agreed.

“An advisory board like this would be essential,” he said. “It’s good the NNI’s primary interest is research, but they need somebody to better guide the priorities in basic research.”

The NNI has done a great job of fostering communications and establishing organization, but it hasn’t adequately addressed the potential effects nanotechnology could have on society, said Denis Gray, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University who also sat on the committee.

“A lot of people already believe nanotechnology may have negative effects, and since that’s the case what you want to do is get out in front of those dilemmas and promote a dialogue on these issues, so you don’t have problems later on,” he said. “The analogy one might make is genetically modified foods. That’s a good example of an area where if people had devoted more time to societal reactions, they may not have the problems they are having now.”

Gray said that choosing to launch NNI was “wise,” saying that after examining the degree to which other countries are investing in nanotechnology, it became clear to him that “we are not alone in thinking there is going to be some payoff here. The NNI has probably ensured that we aren’t late to the game.”


National Research Council recommendations

The National Research Council committee examining the National Nanotechnology Initiative recommended that:

  • An advisory board be established to offer advice on research investment policy, program goals and management issues;
  • The Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) committee put in place a strategic plan articulating goals and objectives for short-term, medium-term, and long-term research, emphasizing long-range goals that move results out of the lab and into the marketplace;
  • NNI support long-term funding in nanoscale science and technology;
  • NSET distribute more money to more agencies researching the intersection of nanoscale technology and biology;
  • The government invest more heavily in development of new instruments for nanoscience;
  • A special White House-managed fund be set up to support interagency research programs; collaborations among the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation should be emphasized;
  • The NSET further nurture an interdisciplinary culture for nanoscale science and technology within the NNI;
  • The government works to create more domestic and international industrial partnerships;
  • A new funding strategy is developed that allows for more research on the societal implications of nanoscale science and technology; this research should be a more vital component of NNI;
  • The NSET develop performance measures to judge NNI’s effectiveness.


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