Feb. 14, 2005 — The NanoBusiness Alliance released its 2005 agenda last week and pledged to push for full funding of federal nanotech programs. While this is expected to be difficult, the group may face an even bigger task in achieving one of its other top priorities – obtaining funding to support commercialization.
The group says more focus needs to be put on funding the gap between the research stage and the point where most venture capital firms are willing to provide support for bringing a product to the marketplace.
The alliance faces challenges achieving both goals in light of President Bush’s fiscal year 2006 budget proposal released Feb. 7, which even Republicans such as Sen. George Allen of Virginia described as “austere.” Bush requested $1.05 billion for nanotech programs next year at the 10 agencies involved in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which is below the $1.23 billion lawmakers provided for the NNI for fiscal year 2005.
Since the NNI was launched in 2001, this is the first time the White House has proposed less money for the NNI than was appropriated the previous year.
While disappointed with the funding amount, congressional supporters noted that many other non-defense discretionary programs were either cut or eliminated under Bush’s budget plan. “In a very, very difficult budget year … nano is holding its own,” said House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.
Bush’s plan also provides more than $220 million less for 2006 than was authorized by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, a 2003 law that authorized research activities at five federal agencies. The agencies are the National Science Foundation, Energy Department, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
ATP on chopping block
At the same time, one of the few government programs aimed at addressing the commercialization issue has once again been targeted for elimination by the administration. NIST’s Advanced Technology Program (ATP) aims to bridge “the gap between the research lab and the marketplace” by providing early-stage investments in partnership with the private sector. While the program has managed to survive, its funding has been dwindling.
Chris Mather, associate director of a regional technology group in Ohio called NorTech, worked for a company in the past that received ATP funding and said he found “the nice thing about ATP was the stated goal is commercialization.”
Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., introduced legislation last year aimed at addressing the commercialization gap facing many nanotech firms. In an e-mail, Honda said he will likely introduce a bill to address the issue again, possibly as soon as March. But he added that he may also “look at a pared down version of the legislation, bearing in mind the budgetary pressures facing the Congress.” And Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also said he planned to work to address the commercialization issue.
Honda said he was “disappointed” that Bush proposed eliminating ATP once again. The president “says he supports the development of the nanotechnology industry in the U.S. but turns around and zeroes out funding for a program that seems perfectly suited for helping commercializing the results of nanotech R&D,” Honda said.
More vulnerable without Fritz support
Honda and others noted while Congress has rejected efforts in the past to kill ATP, “perennial ATP champion” former Sen. Ernest Fritz, D-S.C., who sat on the Appropriations Committee subcommittee with jurisdiction over the program, retired last year. One House aide who monitors nanotech issues said ATP’s prospects for survival are problematic.
Still, as lawmakers begin crafting the fiscal year 2006 spending bills that fund the federal government, nanotech supporters will have some inside help in Congress with the formal launch Feb. 9 of the Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus.
“We need to keep pushing our colleagues in making sure the funding is there,” said Allen, who along with Wyden is co-chairing the caucus in the Senate. Boehlert and Science Committee ranking Democrat Bart Gordon of Tennessee are the House co-chairs.
Allen said, however, that it will be difficult just to obtain funding at the levels proposed by the president.