Taking some initiative in D.C.
A Small Times Q&A with Thomas Kalil

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Mar. 4, 2005 — In the beginning, government scientists and technologists sought more funding for nanotechnology. In the end, a president name-checked nano in a key speech and within months it was a national initiative. But what or who built the bridge between the lab and Oval Office? Many people and events helped launch the National Nanotechnology Initiative. But a linchpin was Thomas Kalil, President Clinton’s deputy assistant for technology and economic policy. Now doing similar work at the University of California, Berkeley, Kalil recently reflected on his role in the NNI and the initiative’s progress on the eve of its fifth anniversary. He spoke by phone with Jeff Karoub.

Q: How did you first become aware of nanotechnology and what compelled you to work on it for the Clinton administration?

I was very interested in increasing support for the physical sciences and engineering and ensuring U.S. leadership in an emerging technology in which global leadership was up for grabs. Also, in helping develop what economists call a “general purpose technology” that has a broad and pervasive impact on our economy and society. There was growing interest both within the science agencies but also within the research community in this area. When the government did solicitations in the area of nanoscale science and engineering, it was only able to fund a fraction of the meritorious proposals.

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In the years prior to the NNI, I worked on something called the Next Generation Internet Initiative that Clinton announced, and then another initiative called Information Technology for the 21st Century. I thought the initiative model had been one way in which I’d been successful in getting high-level support, interest and visibility for a particular area of research. I was confident enough that nanoscale science was such a broad area that it was appropriate for the government to emphasize that in its investment strategy.

Q: How involved was the president himself?

The director of the Office of Management and Budget set aside a certain amount of money that could be used either to increase funding for existing programs or launch new initiatives. The various policy offices within the White House were able to propose to the president initiatives that would be paid for out of this pot of money. It’s really in the budget process that occurs toward the end of the year in which the president became most involved and most aware of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

This was identified as one of the areas that he would highlight prior to the release of the budget, so he did a speech on this at Caltech. He also decided to include it in the State of the Union, and he got really interested in this. In fact, the speechwriters tried to take out the reference to nanotechnology because Clinton’s State of the Union addresses always ran long. He said, “No, I want to leave it in there.” He also started talking about nanotechnology in other contexts. He was giving a speech on health and cancer, and he talked about the potential of nanotechnology to provide earlier diagnosis and better cures. So all the health people came running back to me and said, “How did you get a reference to nanotechnology in the speech on health care and cancer?” I said he’s just internalized this.

Q: You helped ensure that Mike Roco, the National Science Foundation’s senior adviser, got to address the Technology Committee of National Science and Technology Council back in 1999. Do you think if that were today, nanotechnology would have connected with the council?

We had a very strong partnership between Clinton’s political appointees, such as myself, and very hard-working, entrepreneurial civil servants like Roco and all of the agency representatives. I communicated directly with the leaders of the science agencies, and told them that I would fight for any increase they proposed, and also push for overall increases in their budget. If they put this in their budget, the National Economic Council would push for this. Since we played a pivotal role in preparing the president’s budget toward the end of the year that was a credible promise.

The other thing that I did was to interact with the program managers and some of the researchers they were funding and ask them a simple question: Imagine that we were to increase funding for nanoscale science and engineering. What are some of the goals and grand challenges that could come out of this that you think are ambitious but not unrealistic? Then I worked to identify the grand challenges and translate them into terms that the politicians and the media could understand.

Q: All of that required technical, political and policy skill. But there also was serendipity. You had a president who actually cared enough to go off-script with it.

There were a number of serendipitous factors. One, we had budget surpluses, so that created an environment in which policy entrepreneurs like myself could pitch the president on new ideas. Two, the president and vice president had a high level of interest in science, technology and innovation. The third thing was that in ‘99 and 2000, the information technology sector was accounting for one-third of U.S. economic growth, even though it was only 8 percent of the U.S. economy. In that environment, it was a very credible argument to say that investing in science and technology today means economic growth, productivity, job creation and high wages in the future.

Q: Have you followed the NNI and the passage of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act? If so, what are the strengths and weaknesses of these efforts?

I was delighted to see that the NNI was maintained as a presidential initiative and that there were some increases in funding between the time that we left and today. I also think that it’s useful for Congress to pass legislation that authorizes it, because it provides some level of stability for the initiative. Having said that, authorization is neither necessary nor sufficient to receive one additional dime of funding. I am always stunned at the extent to which the general media will say the Congress has allocated $3.7 billion to support the NNI. They’ve done no such thing.

I have a number of concerns about the future of the NNI. I believe that nanotechnology has such a broad range of applications that we are not investing enough in any given area, and that it’s way too soon to have the budgets for the NNI to plateau, which it essentially has done. From a macro budget point of view, we’re not keeping up with the growth rates of foreign governments. I think it would be highly ironic if we succeed in stimulating every other government to launch a major nano initiative and have them persist with sustained double-digit increases in funding and have us essentially plateau at around $1 billion. Also, the budgets of the science agencies are going down rather than up.

Q: You recognize that belts are tightening, but also that the full potential of nano will require expanded investment. How do you reconcile these points?

Ultimately it’s up to the president and Congress to decide whether there are certain areas that, even in an era of deficits and belt-tightening, are so important they need to be protected. The president and Congress made that decision with NASA’s Moon to Mars Mission. It’s certainly not impossible in a $1.7 trillion budget or whatever the number is today to say, “Nanotechnology is important. We’re not only not going to cut it; we’re going to allow some increases in it.”

Q: How important is the NNI’s creation in the Clinton administration’s legacy? Do you believe that it gets the appropriate amount of credit in his new presidential library?

Well, it’s funny you should ask that because I was just down at the library and there is a whole exhibit devoted to science, technology and innovation, and nanotechnology is in that. A colleague of mine who worked on health issues came running up to me complaining because science, technology and innovation had a whole exhibit devoted to it and health was just one part of an overall exhibit on a broad number of domestic policy issues. I think that it does quite well in terms of the Clinton library.

In terms of legacy, it’s too soon to tell. I was making a gamble that if we made this increased investment in nanoscale science and engineering, a long time after his presidency it could wind up having a large impact on our economy, society and quality of life. And if you go back and read Clinton’s speech where he talks about the goals, in the next breath he says some of these things may take 20 years or more to realize but that’s why there’s an important role for the government. I think that if you asked would historians view this as a key part of the president’s legacy, I think they will. But I also believe that it’s really too soon to tell.

The Kalil file

Thomas Kalil

Special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Education: B.A. from University of Wisconsin-Madison in political science and international economics. Completed graduate work at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Experience: Deputy director of the White House National Economic Council and deputy assistant to President Clinton for technology and economic policy. From 1998-2001, he served as the White House co-chair of the interagency committees that launched and managed the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Before that, he was a trade specialist at the law firm Dewey Ballantine, where he represented the Semiconductor Industry Association.


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