Senator introduces bill to create
permanent federal nano agency

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18, 2002 — U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced a bill Tuesday that would create a new, permanent federal agency that would provide a “smart, accelerated and organized approach to nanotechnology research, development and education,” he said.

Wyden, chairman of the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, unveiled the legislation during a nanotechnology hearing in his committee Tuesday. He said nanotechnology “has the potential to change America on a scale equal to, if not greater than, the computer revolution.” To do that, he said, the country must “marshal its various nanotechnology efforts into one driving force to remain the world’s leader in this burgeoning field.” Federal support, he said, is vital.

The bill, called the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, would establish the National Nanotechnology Research Program, a federal agency with its own budget and staff. The full Commerce Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill on Thursday.

“I think it’s wonderful that we are taking it to the next level,” said Cynthia Kuper, president and chief of research for Versilant Nanotechnologies, a Philadelphia company that buys raw nanotechnology materials and develops them into commercial products.

Kuper, who sat in the audience during the hearing, said she is excited about the prospect of the industry getting its own federal agency with a balance of staffers committed to promoting nanotechnology.

“It’s about time,” she said. “Companies like mine working in the Valley of Death need the government to push us into the commercial sector.”

For now, the federal government handles its involvement with nanotechnology research and development through the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a confederation of staffers at agencies across government working in nanotechnology. Launched by former President Clinton in 2000, the NNI exists at the whim of the president. It has not been made permanent by Congress. Wyden’s bill seeks to change that.

The bill is largely the product of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. Lieberman’s staff has been toiling over the language of the bill for more than a year. The bill must go through the Commerce Committee before reaching the full Senate, however, and Lieberman does not sit on the committee. Co-sponsoring the legislation with Wyden and Lieberman were Sen. George Allen, R-Va., the ranking member of Wyden’s subcommittee; Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.; and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

In addition to creating the new National Nanotechnology Research Program, the bill would:

  • Establish a Center for Ethical, Societal, Educational, Legal, and Workforce Issues Related to Nanotechnology;
  • Create an Information Services and Application Council to nurture the commercialization process;
  • Form a National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel, a board of as many as 20 people from industry and academia, to advise the president, Congress and the National Science and Technology Council;
  • Establish a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office to provide technical and administrative support for the Council and the Advisory Panel and serve as the point of contact on federal nanotechnology program activities for government organizations, academia, industry, professional societies and others.

The hearing was designed to give senators information about nanotechnology. Although the hearing room was packed with spectators, Wyden and Allen were the only lawmakers in attendance. Given Wyden’s and Allen’s almost giddy enthusiasm about nanotechnology, coupled with the parade of encomiums proffered by the nanotechnology advocates testifying, the hearing was a nanotechnology love-in.

“Nanotechnology will likely have a broad and fundamental impact on many sectors of the economy,” said Richard Russell, associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, during the hearing. “Some have even suggested that this impact will surpass the combined impact of both biotech and information technology.”

“Nanotechnology is rapidly becoming the Industrial Revolution of the 21st century,” said Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, a trade association, in testimony. “The importance of nanotechnology cannot be overstated. It will affect almost every aspect of our lives — our food, clothing, medicines, computing and energy needs.”

Said Stan Williams, director of quantum science research at Hewlett Packard Labs: “Nanotechnology has the potential to greatly improve the properties of nearly everything that humans currently make, and will lead to the creation of new medicines, materials and devices that will substantially improve the health, wealth and security of American and global citizens.”

Also testifying were Samuel Stupp, director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanoscience in Advanced Medicine at Northwestern University; and Nathan Swami, director of the Initiative for Nanotechnology in Virginia and also the microelectronics program director at the University of Virginia.

The specter of an international race for nanotechnology supremacy, in which the United States is competing against Europe and Asia, was a prominent feature of most of the testimony.

After the hearing, NNI Director Mike Roco said the event was a “good first step” toward giving nanotechnology a permanent federal commitment. He said that research in international nanotechnology research and development shows that the United States should boost its investment by about 30 percent a year for the next five years if it wants to keep up and expand nanotechnology programs into agriculture, nanomedicine, food, energy and other areas.


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