After the bill: Budget a bit short, but network coming together

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March 24, 2004 — With the January release of the Bush administration’s budget proposal, nanotech supporters got the first signal of whether the money will follow the recent enactment of a bill codifying the federal government’s nanotechnology activities into law.

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The bill’s supporters say they are satisfied that the administration has shown its commitment to nanotech in its fiscal year 2005 budget, released Feb. 2 — even if the proposed funding fails to match the amounts authorized by the nanotech legislation.

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“In this tight budget year, there wasn’t much hope that it would be at authorization bill levels,” said Heidi Mohlman Tringe, a spokeswoman for the House Science Committee.

Still, the administration’s $982 million budget request for federal nanotechnology initiatives marks only a 2 percent increase over last year, well below the 10 percent increase for nanotech in Bush’s 2004 budget plan.

In examining the individual requests for the five agencies covered by the nanotechnology bill, Bush’s proposed spending falls below the amounts authorized by the new law.

The president’s $305 million request for nanotech activities at the National Science Foundation — a 20 percent increase over fiscal year 2004, Tringe noted — is $80 million below the amount authorized by the new nanotech law for 2005. The Energy Department would get $211 million under the Bush budget, compared with the $317 million authorized by the new law. And the National Institute of Standards and Technology would receive $15 million less — $53 million — under Bush’s plan, compared with the authorized amount.

At the same time, NASA would receive nearly $1 million more under the Bush budget request of $35 million, while the Environmental Protection Agency would receive about $500,000 less than the $5.5 million authorized in the nanotech bill.

Last week, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., discussed the difficulties faced by those who support increased funding for nanotechnology, given the extreme budget constraints lawmakers must deal with.

As if to underscore his point, the House Budget Committee approved a budget resolution last week that essentially freezes most nondefense and nonhomeland security discretionary funding for fiscal year 2005.

Pointing to the Energy Department’s 20-year plan to update its scientific facilities, Boehlert said at a conference at Brookhaven National Laboratory, “All of us need to do a lot of missionary work (in Congress) if anything in the DOE planning document is to become a reality. I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying that.”

He added that the “future of science funding will depend on many things beyond your control — the macroeconomic situation, the nature of competing needs, etc. But it will also depend on how actively you can make people like me understand why what you’re about is important to our nation.”

NNIN Up and Running

Meanwhile, the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) was supposed to be up and running by January. But by early February, the NSF and Cornell University, the university leading the project, had yet to ink a contract because of delays in completing the necessary paperwork, according to Lawrence Goldberg, a senior engineering adviser at the NSF, who said he expected to complete the deal by the end of February.

The NNIN is made up of 13 universities that have joined together to create a nationwide system that will share their facilities to support research and education into nanoscale science, engineering and technology.

Despite the delay in completing the contract, the participating universities have been welcoming users since the first of the year.

“We are welcoming users regularly into our facilities,” said NNIN Director Sandip Tiwari in early February. “Some facilities have five to 10 new external users entering and getting trained a week.”

The NNIN is based on, and will expand on, the National Nanofabrication Users Network, which only involved five universities. With the NNUN contract set to end last year, NSF expanded the focus of the initiative when it chose to rebid the $70 million, five-year contract and award it to the 13-member consortium.

Goldberg said the expanded network of institutions involved with the NNIN will cover more disciplines, such as environmental nanomaterials, and also will allow for a greater range of users from academia to small businesses to international users. In addition, he said, the NNIN hopes to reach out beyond its user base to provide educational information to elementary and high school students. “The awardees thought what was lacking was a way to excite kids,” Goldberg said. “They thought nano was a good way … to reach out to them.”

Initially, the network will offer a Web portal that will allow users to “get connected with the appropriate site” that has the capabilities needed by users, he said.

Tiwari has high hopes for the initiative, saying he is optimistic the NNIN will “bring to fruition the promise of nanotechnology across all disciplines.”

Nano Part of Energy’s Plan

At the Energy Department, nanoscale science is one of the seven short-term goals in the agency’s new 20-year “strategic plan” aimed at obtaining “dramatic increases in knowledge and scientific achievements,” according to a Feb. 12 statement announcing the project. The plan follows the release late last year of a 20-year proposal aimed at updating the department’s key scientific facilities.

“Our emphasis on the emerging area of nanoscience, for example, requires advances in new analytical tools and the creation of entirely new ways of conducting science that could lead to major breakthroughs in energy production and environmental cleanup,” Raymond L. Orbach, director of the department’s Office of Science, said in the statement.

The department aims to “lead the nanoscale science revolution” with the goal of enabling the production of new composite materials and joining technologies by using fabrication at the nanoscale by 2011. As part of this effort, the department’s nanoscale research program, which is being led by the agency’s Office of Science, calls for the establishment of five nanoscale science research centers.

Through these centers and other efforts aimed at supporting nanoscale research, the department will focus on “attaining a fundamental understanding of phenomena unique to the nanoscale, achieve the ability to design and synthesize materials at the nanoscale to produce materials with desired properties and functions…, integrate nanoscale objects into microscale assemblies and macroscale devices, and develop experimental characterization tools and theory modeling (and) simulation tools to advance nanoscale science.”


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