NSF Coordinates Nanotech R&D Effort

Wed, 14 Jan 1998 04:54:43 -0500

>From "New Technology Week"

Whether it's in longer-lasting drill bits, cosmetics that block the sun as well
as enhance personal appearance, or improved disk-drive heads to boost
data-storage density, nanotechnology is beginning to make its mark on the
American economy.
But the ability of U.S. industry to fully exploit the potential of
nanotechnology is not assured, according to the National Science Foundation
(NSF), which is leading an effort to get researchers in universities,
government, and industry to coordinate and collaborate more effectively.
In the last year NSF has quietly enlisted a dozen federal research agencies in
an ad hoc forum known as the Interagency Nanotechnology Group. The aim is to
provide a means of tracking the wide array of basic and applied research in
nanotechnology conducted in the United States.
"It is essential to have a coordinated activity in nanotechnology," says Mike
Roco, program director at NSF's Engineering Directorate. What the United States
is up against, he notes, is targeted research efforts backed by government
funding in Japan and Europe.
European R&D efforts in nanotechnology are supported both at a national level
and by the European Union. Germany's Federal Ministry of Research and
Technology is spending $50 million a year, and France is spending a similar
amount. Smaller efforts are under way in the UK, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland,
and Russia.
Government agencies in Japan also are estimated to be investing at least $50
million a year in the field. In addition, there is strong support for
nanoscience and nanotechnology in Japanese industry. Elsewhere in Asia, China,
Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore have ongoing research efforts in nanotechnology.
At present annual U.S. federal spending on nanoscience and nanotechnology is
estimated at about $115 million, with about $63 million coming from NSF. Other
federal agencies supporting research in the field include the Air Force Office
of Scientific Research, Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, Department of
Commerce, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Department of Energy
(DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National
Institutes of Health (NIH), Naval Research Laboratory, National Institute of
Standards and Technology (NIST), and Office of Naval Research (ONR).
While the scope of U.S. research is diverse, it takes in basic science, as well
as industry- and DOD-driven development programs, it is by no means
"(W)e have kinds of islands of knowledge," explains Roco. "There are many
experiments. We do not have good simulations and we do not have good methods to
build for a given purpose or a given use."
The U.S. is at a disadvantage because its research efforts in the field, which
encompasses such diverse areas as biology, chemistry, and physics, can be
relatively disconnected. At the same time, there are many unknowns, because
physical and chemical processes often yield different results at the nanoscale.
"The time has come to create the infrastructure for this field," says Roco,
stressing that the U.S. needs to position itself now on the nanotechnology
highway if it is going to reap big rewards in the decades to come.
Indeed, he says, ensuring that an adequate foundation exists in the U.S. for
exploring and utilizing nanotechnology is "the main goal that we see" for the
Interagency Nanotechnology Group.
What's the rush? Roco warns that if the nation's research communities don't
strengthen their focus now on the technology, which he describes as one of "the
most revolutionary forces in the next century," it could be difficult for many
American companies to compete in the future.
Nanoscience and nanotechnology cut across many industries, including
pharmaceuticals, electronics, chemical production and refining, and materials.
They are attracting growing research support because the technology provides a
means to enhance the structure and performance of materials at the molecular
And already there is considerable evidence that ability to control the
composition of structures at dimensions of 50 nanometers or smaller can produce
breakthroughs in coatings, electronic components, and biomedicine. Some
estimates put the market for nanoparticles, nano-engineered materials, and
other nanotechnology at more than $1 billion annually.
The potential of the technology can barely be imagined, says Roco, who likens
its current state to that of computers in the 1950s. "People still have doubts
about this, but not the people who see the future," he says.
Roco's agency apparently agrees. NSF is boosting support for nanoscience and
nanotechnology by $10.6 million in fiscal year 1998. The agency allocated about
$63 million in FY 1997 to science programs that directly or indirectly
supported nanoscience and nanotechnology.
NSF's directorates for biological sciences; computer and information science
and engineering; engineering; and mathematical and physical sciences expect to
award around 20 grants of $300,000 to $700,000 each. Beyond just boosting the
level of research activity, the new NSF initiative is explicitly designed to
start drawing scattered researchers together in collaborative R&D efforts (see
story on page 9).
The grants program will engage other federal agencies in a novel way. In
addition to the standard peer review panel, 12 federal research agencies will
be able to observe and comment on project proposals. And, where appropriate,
NSF may send researchers with solid proposals to other federal agencies
supporting nanotechnology R&D.
Larry Kabacoff, a researcher at ONR's Materials Division, says the concept is
innovative and constructive. Not only will it give other R&D agencies an
opportunity to do some cherry picking, but it also should benefit NSF, he says.
"You need to have people who know why they are doing something (beyond just
pursuing good science)," says Kabacoff, noting that there may be a sound basis
for rejecting proposals if they have little relevance to other research or when
net benefit may be marginal.
Robert Shull, leader of the Magnetic Materials Group at NIST, rates NSF's new
grants initiative, along with the activities of the Interagency Nanotechnology
Group, as a good start at coordinating R&D in the field.
"We need to find out where there are big gaps in our knowledge. I know we are
going to finds big holes. This field is still in its formative stages," says
Shull. "What I'd like to get out of this is to identify barriers for developing
things faster and getting it into industry so that we begin to see real
Efforts to coordinate nanoscience and nanotechnology research across the
federal sector are supported by Herb Goronkin of Motorola. He suggests,
however, that such efforts be restrained because the field is very young, and
because it crosses so many scientific disciplines and industries. Cookie-cutter
approaches to research coordination, he says, aren't appropriate for the
Neither NSF nor the Interagency Nanotechnology Group is seeking to place
limitations on research in the field, Roco says. Indeed, he contends that the
interagency group just wants to help "drive the field" to assure that it
develops adequately in the U.S. "You don't want to do this," he adds, "by
setting a lot of formal rules."
Nevertheless, Roco says, its now essential to have some sort of framework for
following R&D activities in the United States if nanotechnology is to get
better recognition from federal research funding agencies, the Congress, and
In pursuit of that goal, NSF, NASA, NIH, DOE, NIST, and ONR will hold a
workshop on the status of nanotechnology in conjunction with the World
Technology Evaluation Center on February 10 in Arlington, Va.
The group also is expected to push next year to get the White House's Office of
Science and Technology Policy to focus on nanotechnology and its long-term
infrastructure needs.
COPYRIGHT 1997 King Communications Group, Inc.