Nano expert and D.C. insider will knit together various tiny threads

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WASHINGTON, June 20, 2003  — It wasn’t a headline that the scientist liked much: “Clayton Teague Thinks Small,” blared the North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) student newspaper.

That was 1968, and Teague was a graduate student at the time. Now, he’s the first full-time director of the federal National Nanotechnology Coordination Office  (NNCO), and he’s thinking even more infinitesimally. Teague has spent his career helping the federal government explore the world at the nanoscale. The visible contours of that world have grown during Teague’s more than 30 years of federal service, thanks in part to his work.

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Teague is a white-goateed, compact man with a friendly Georgia lilt to his deep voice and a healthy laugh. The University of North Texas physics Ph.D. has devoted his life to nanoscale metrology and quantum tunneling, serving as editor in chief for a decade of the journal Nanotechnology, where he currently sits on the editorial board. The research, including a host of publications and patents, has all been done during his long career with what is now called the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Before starting his new assignment with the NNCO April 15, he was chief of NIST’s Manufacturing Metrology Division.

During an interview at his National Science Foundation office in Arlington, Va., he championed nanotechnology as a great potential economic and social balm for the nation, and he pledged to use his office to help knit together the many scientific and research threads comprising nanotechnology today, from simulation and modeling to biotechnology to materials science.

These are interesting times for the federal government’s role in nanotechnology. Since President Bill Clinton launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2000, the program has more than quadrupled in size, in terms of federal dollars poured into the science. Both houses of Congress have held multiple nanotechnology hearings, and they are pushing along bills that would cement the NNI in the federal bureaucracy and launch new initiatives, including the creation of a research center that would examine environmental, health and social aspects of nanotechnology.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has grown sharply interested in the NNI, in part because of the ballooning amount of nanotechnology spending that it tracks, which is approaching $1 billion. That heightened oversight has led to demands that the NNI produce more results. At a June meeting, members of the Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology  urged the NNI to devote at least part of its administrative energy to finding an inspiring central goal for nanotechnology research, something akin to sending a man to the moon.

Teague sits smack in the center of this mounting whorl of federal activity.

He got a sense of how demanding the job would be during his first week, when a Senate staffer called him to testify the following week at a hearing.

“That was a big deal to me,” said Teague in his spare office, where boxes were still unpacked. “It was the first time I had ever given testimony before Congress. It was a totally new experience, and it was the second week on the job.”

Teague is the perfect leader for the job because, among other things, “he’s very organized,” said NNI director Mike Roco. “That will help because the activity (surrounding nanotechnology) is becoming very intense.”

Teague spends his days meeting with congressional and White House staffers to talk about nanotechnology policy. He also listens to a lot of people in different agencies working on nanotechnology projects, and Teague views this work as a primary responsibility, at least for now.

He said he wants his office to “make sure we give them good representation” in the White House.

In addition, nanotechnology is unusually multidisciplinary, and for the federal government to realize the science’s potential, agencies are going to have to pool resources and work together.

Teague is concerned about the public perception of nanotechnology, and he plans to use the office to educate people about the science. While many tout the promise of nanotechnology, critics point to the science’s unknown environmental and social consequences. 

“The scientific community will address this in a very, very direct way, and if materials are being introduced into the environment or the workplace, standard procedures that are now in place” to deal with other elements will be applied to nanoparticles.

“Right now almost all of the studies that have been done, where they look at (the toxicity of nanoparticles), are preliminary and certainly of a nonconclusive nature,” he said. “It would be too early to draw any conclusions about any undue levels of toxicity. There is not enough evidence to believe that these things are unusually toxic.”

Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, said Teague is “extraordinarily competent.”

“He’s been doing this stuff forever,” Modzelewski said. “Aside from being a competent manager, he’s also very likeable. So it’s a great combination.”

Ideally, he said, Teague will toil to make the office “not something that mirrors a National Science Foundation program, which is funding universities, but looking at business.”

The office should “play this role in the center making sure all of the pieces of the government know about it and are moving forward with it.”


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