X-Message-Number: 12096
Date: Thu, 8 Jul 1999 20:27:08 -0600 (MDT)
From: Paul Bowersox <>
Subject: FYI #106 - <Federal Nanotech R&D>

<In a previous life I was a public policy PhD student so this caught my
eye.  Now nanotech is in the same budget crosscut category as the mission
to planet earth and global environment monitoring issues I worked with at
OTA long ago.  Say, if you have some ideas about policy problems in
cryonics give me a holler>

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 $90 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

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