Nano R&D

Gina Miller (
Thu, 8 Jul 1999 14:29:42 -0700

>From Dave Farber

>The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News
>Number 106: July 7, 1999
>White House and Congress Show Support for Nanotechnology
>"It's amazing what one can do just by putting atoms where you
>want them." - Richard Smalley, Winner of 1996 Nobel Prize in
>One area of research that is beginning to come in for special
>interest from the White House and Congress is nanotechnology
>the study and application of materials, devices, and systems on a
>scale of nanometers (10 ^-9, or 10 to the negative ninth power, meters).
>At this scale researchers are learning to manipulate individual atoms,
>an ability that experts testified could lead to revolutions in
>materials design, manufacturing, medicine, electronics, energy,
>and numerous other fields of human endeavor.
>The President's science advisor, Neal Lane, has rated
>nanotechnology one of the government's 11 inter-agency R&D
>priorities for the purpose of planning the FY 2001 budget. On
>June 22, four witnesses extolled the promise of R&D in the
>nanometer range before a supportive House Science Subcommittee on
>Basic Research.
>Basic Research Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) and
>Ranking Minority Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) both
>commented on the enormous potential of nanoscale research. The
>federal government is currently spending about $230 million per
>year in this area, with NSF, DOD and DOE as the key players,
>Smith reported. Noting that "a significant amount of research is
>currently underway in Europe and Japan," Smith questioned whether
>the U.S. effort was sufficient, and what the federal and private
>sector roles should be.
>A nanometer is "truly a magical unit of length," said Eugene
>Wong, NSF's Assistant Director for Engineering. "It is the point
>where the smallest man-made things meet nature." He discussed
>the benefits of being able to change the properties of a material
>without changing its chemical composition, by manipulating
>materials atom-by-atom. Instead of discovering new phenomena by
>accident, he said, scientists can now look for them
>systematically or design them to order.
>Paul McWhorter of Sandia National Laboratories compared the
>promise of nanotechnology to the first silicon revolution in
>microelectronics, saying this "second silicon revolution" had the
>potential to surpass the impact of the first. "Twentieth century
>technologies...pale in comparison with what will be possible"
>when scientists can build things one atom at a time, said Rice
>University's Richard Smalley, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in
>Chemistry. He gave a personal example, citing the chemotherapy
>he is undergoing as a "blunt tool" that kills other cells in the
>body beside cancer cells; nanotechnology, he said, would allow
>specially engineered drugs to target just cancer cells.
>The witnesses agreed the federal government has to play a
>fundamental role in funding nanotechnology R&D. They noted that,
>although many future applications were apparent, much basic
>research was needed before companies could be assured of
>returning a profit from investment in the field. Estimating that
>the time horizon to develop a product could be 10 or 20 years,
>Smalley said a private investor would be "a fool" to start up a
>company at this stage. Ralph Merkle of the XEROX Palto Alto
>Research Center added that developing the potential of
>nanotechnology would be a major project, like developing nuclear
>weapons or lunar rockets. He pointed out that cooperative
>research is needed across many disciplines, including scanning
>probe microscopy, supramolecular chemistry, protein engineering,
>self assembly, robotics, materials science, computational
>chemistry, self replicating systems, physics, and computer
>science. Government funding, he said, is both "essential and
>appropriate:" while benefits of nanoscience will flow across many
>companies and the entire economy, few companies can afford the
>resources and time - years to decades - needed.
>McWhorter agreed that "the nation must maintain a leadership role."
>Private companies would invest substantially when government funding
>has mitigated the risk, he said; federal investment will act as a
>catalyst for private investment. NSF is taking the lead on
>funding the basic research and infrastructure, Wong said, as well
>as coordinating the research effort across departments and
>agencies. He felt the NSF budget of approximately $9 million per
>year was not enough, and said he was "eagerly advocating" for
>more support in the FY 2001 budget.
>The witnesses also concurred on the usefulness of international
>cooperation, agreeing that if the U.S. tried to isolate its
>research, it would lose intellectual vigor. Wong praised the
>current system of international competition and cooperation at
>the same time, saying it was "a boon to the whole field."
>"Those of us who heard this testimony," Smith concluded, "will be
>flag bearers" for nanotechnology. "It seems obvious," he added,
>that there is enough information on the benefits "to aggressively
>pursue research in this area" in the FY 2001 budget process.
>Just a month before Smith's hearing, on May 20, the White House
>Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a press release on
>guidance given to heads of federal departments and agencies for
>the FY 2001 budget planning process. The guidance identifies
>nanotechnology as one of 11 "R&D areas that are important
>national efforts requiring coordinated investments across several
>agencies." These R&D priorities are to be "incorporated in
>department and agency budget submissions to OMB in early
>September." The President's National Science and Technology
>Council (NSTC) will meet later in September "to review the S&T
>investment portfolio and help ensure the strongest possible R&D
>budget proposal for FY 2001."
>Audrey T. Leath
>Public Information Division
>The American Institute of Physics
>(301) 209-3094

Gina "Nanogirl" Miller
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