President’s advisers recommend NNI branch out

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May 19, 2005 — An advisory panel to President George W. Bush praised the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative for its management of programs and finances in an assessment released on Wednesday. But it cautioned that increasing investments by other countries were eroding the United States’ position as a nanotechnology leader, and it encouraged the multi-agency NNI to broaden its impact by building bridges with more government bodies, economic development groups and industry.

The director of the office that supports the NNI said the initiative’s participants would consult with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and related panels and integrate their recommendations into its mission, and said some preliminary steps had already been taken. “I’m sure we’ll be having some dialogue with members of PCAST,” said Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office.

PCAST unveiled its report, “The National Nanotechnology Initiative at Five Years: Assessment and Recommendations of the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel,” as required under the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003. The act called for an outside advisory body to scrutinize the national program at least every two years.

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“This report is a thoughtful and highly informative assessment on the current status of the United States’ research programs for nanotechnology,” said John Marburger III, Bush’s science adviser and director of Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a written statement.  “The U.S. is currently the world leader in nanotechnology, but our international competitors are aggressively developing their own programs in this area.”

The panel examined whether the five-year initiative effectively furthered nanoscience and nanotechnology research and development while addressing workforce, education, social and environmental issues. It gave the NNI generally high marks for its efforts.

But the panel, which included two dozen representatives from academia, industry and associations, also offered suggestions for improvements. It encouraged the NNI to work with industry to facilitate tech transfer between labs and businesses, and to coordinate its activities with states to maximize R&D and commercialization efforts. It called for a publicly available inventory of assets such as facilities, instruments, research results and intellectual property to assist getting new technologies into the public sector.

Teague said that the NNI already placed tech transfer and commercialization among its missions, but added that PCAST’s focus provided an opportunity to emphasize the issue even more. “It’s an ongoing component,” he said. “We’ll try to look at ways to encourage more in this area.”

Recommendations to build a database of the NNI’s assets complemented goals discussed within the NNI, according to Teague. Members had already identified a need to provide industrial and academic researchers with an accurate tabulation of facilities, equipment and other physical and intellectual assets in the nation’s centers and user facilities at universities and federal labs. The ability for some labs to make their facilities remotely accessible through the Internet has made the endeavor even more valuable, he said. He estimated that members would launch the project in four to five months.

“All agencies plan to develop databases,” Teague said. “The consensus is that we need to do it, that it would be useful. Most people think that it will be a formidable task.”

The PCAST report supported continuing research on fundamental nanoscience but also emphasized the long-term economic and societal gains that could arise from research. “While we all want the United States to benefit economically from nanotechnology as quickly as possible,” the authors wrote in the report, “it is critically important that the basic intellectual property surrounding nanotechnology be generated and reside within this country. Those who hold this knowledge will ‘own’ commercialization in the future.”

The panel recommended that the NNI, which involves more than 20 federal agencies, establish relationships with the Departments of Labor and Education to ensure training programs fill nanotechnology’s future workforce demands. The panel also stressed the need for the NNI to build more awareness within the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation, which it said could benefit from nanotechnology advancements.  
Other key findings from the report:

— The roughly $1 billion the federal government will spend on nanotechnology R&D this fiscal year is about a quarter of the current global investment by all nations. Total annual federal, state, and private spending on R&D is $3 billion, or one-third of the estimated $9 billion in total worldwide spending by the public and private sectors combined. 

The panel acknowledged that direct comparisons between countries was difficult, and said it had commissioned the Science and Technology Policy Institute to provide a more detailed analysis by developing a way to normalize and fairly compare various government investments.

— The United States leads in the number of nanotech startup companies, patenting and scientific publishing, but it is being challenged by other nations as they beef up their programs.

— The panel supported efforts to address the effects of nanotechnology on the environment, health and society. It encouraged regulatory agencies to coordinate their efforts and collaborate internationally as well.

For a copy of the full report, visit


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