||BIG IMPACT Nanotechnology--including materials
like carbon nanotubes illustrated here--has the potential to
be the next Industrial Revolution.
COURTESY OF CIENTÍFICA
The field of nanotechnology is getting a lot of attention these
days. Many scientists and policymakers are excited over the potential
impact of this field on areas such as energy, public health, and
the environment. But despite this bright future, it's the potentially
harmful implications of the science as detailed by some media
outlets and science-fiction literature that is garnering the interest
of the general public.
Creating an environment that recognizes and addresses public
concern, while encouraging continued research and development,
is a key challenge facing the nascent field. That challenge was
a major topic of discussion at a recent nanotechnology conference.
Held in Washington, D.C., in early April, the meeting, called
Nanotechnology Initiative: From Vision to Commercialization,
brought together approximately 400 scientists from academia, industry,
and the government to assess the state of the field and discuss
its future direction.
Support for nanotechnology continues to grow inside government
and industry. The rapid pace of this support was reviewed by several
policymakers at the conference.
"Nanotechnology refers implicitly to a set of capabilities
at the atomic scale that grew steadily throughout the last half
of the past century into the basis for a true technology revolution
in our society," said John H. Marburger III, director of the White
House Office of Science & Technology Policy. It was only
recently that "we actually had the instruments to make atomic-level
measurements, and the computing power to exploit that knowledge."
As scientists and engineers develop and study nanomaterials,
the materials are finding their way into commercial products.
For example, such materials are already used in transistors, water-
and stain-resistant textiles, automotive components, and tennis
"Perhaps most striking to me is the news this week that nanomanufacturing
is arriving in Danville, Va.," said Phillip J. Bond, undersecretary
for technology at the Department of Commerce. "Danville is in
rural southwest Virginia. Yet, Luna
Innovations is investing $6.4 million to establish a facility
there for the production of cost-effective, carbonaceous nanomaterials--like
buckyballs and carbon nanotubes--to be used for R&D of new
military and commercial applications," he explained. He continued
that if nanotechnology has made it to Danville, "it is fair to
say that nanotechnology--and nanotechnology-related jobs and economic
growth--is no longer science fiction, but economic reality."
AN IMPORTANT DRIVER that is moving the field
to real applications is the federal National
Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Officially set up in 2000,
the initiative provides a long-term R&D focus for nanotechnology
and coordinates federal government efforts in this area (C&EN,
Oct. 16, 2000, page 39).
NNI funds research on fundamental science and engineering,
on targeted R&D on a set of nine "grand challenges," and on
the societal impacts of nanotechnology. The initiative also supports
17 centers of excellence that conduct broad multidisciplinary
research within a host institution and seven user centers for
the development of infrastructure, instrumentation, standards,
and computational capabilities that can be used by the research
According to Mihail C. Roco, senior adviser for nanotechnology
at the National Science Foundation,
all R&D sectors have received NNI support. Between 2001 and
2003, NNI invested 65 to 70% of its funding in academic institutions,
25 to 30% in research laboratories, and about 5% in industry.
He also noted that industrial support of nanotechnology is increasing,
and industry's long-term investment may surpass the federal NNI
budget next year. This shift is to be expected as the field continues
to mature, he says.
The current level of funding for NNI is $961 million--nearly
twice the level the initiative was given when it was established
just three years ago. The Administration's request for the 2005
fiscal year calls for a 2% increase to $982 million. The largest
share of the funds is managed by NSF, which is responsible for
providing the fundamental science underpinning the field.
While most of the 10 agencies that receive a share of the NNI
budget will see an increase in funds in 2005, rescheduling of
several projects at the National Institute of Standards &
Technology and the reassignment of applied nanotechnology projects
to the respective areas of relevance at the Department of Defense
and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration will result
in a decrease in funding at those agencies.
The U.S. is not alone in its funding of this small science.
According to Roco, the global government investment in nanotechnology--in
part stimulated by NNI--is about $3.5 billion. Currently, the
U.S., Japan, and Western Europe are the biggest investors in the
area, with investments approaching $1 billion for each.
"Across the world, nations are investing in the research, development,
technology, infrastructure, education, and training that will
enable them to compete and win in a technology-driven global economy,"
Bond said. But he warned meeting attendees that they must address
any concerns the public may have about the safety of the technology
so that progress in the field is not held up by public fears.
"IN THE PAST, that might have meant that the benefits that
such technology could bring to the nation and our people would
be delayed," Bond said. While that's bad enough, he added, "in
today's highly competitive global economy, technology leadership
delayed is technology leadership denied."
NNI HAS NINE SPECIFIC R&D
- Nanostructured materials by design, led by NSF.
- Manufacturing at the nanoscale, led by NIST and NSF.
- Chemical-biological-radiological-explosive detection and
protection, led by DOD.
- Nanoscale instrumentation and metrology, led by NIST and
- Nanoelectronics, -photonics, and magnetics, led by
DOD and NSF.
- Health care, therapeutics, and diagnostics, led by NIH.
- Efficient energy conversion and storage, led by DOE.
- Microcraft and robotics, led by NASA.
- Nanoscale processes for environmental improvement, led
by EPA and NSF.
For the U.S. to remain at the global forefront of nanotechnology,
all parties must remain committed to and open about the science.
Last November, Congress showed its long-term support by passing
the 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act (C&EN, Nov. 24,
2003, page 20), which President George W. Bush signed into law
in December. The bill formalizes NNI and authorizes $3.7 billion
for R&D over the next four years. Although specific funding
is not designated, the law calls for more support for research
into the societal and ethical impacts of nanotechnology--an area
key to the future of the science--in addition to R&D.
"There is no question that NNI has a big price tag," especially
under the current budgetary constraints, said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.),
who was one of the sponsors of the bill. "But this is an investment
we can't afford to pass up," he added.
The cosponsor of the House version of the bill, Rep. Michael
M. Honda (D.-Calif.), agreed. He is drafting legislation to provide
additional help in moving nanotechnology into commercial products.
The bill, which the representative's spokesman, John P. Staunton,
said they hope to introduce later this year, would create a public-private
partnership to address the funding gap between research and commercialization--sometimes
called death valley. "The idea is at the conceptual stage right
now, and we are looking for feedback from the scientific community
on many of the details, such as what parameters would make such
a program attractive to private investors and how to deal with
intellectual property issues," Staunton said.
The driver for a policymaker's interest in nanotechnology is
its potential for job creation and economic benefit. "The notion
of nanotechnology is emblematic for U.S. competitiveness," said
David Goldston, House Science Committee chief of staff.
Goldston cautioned the researchers and others at the meeting
to be open and straightforward about nanotech research and to
avoid the pitfalls that plague biotechnology. "We need to study
the problems and come up with solutions, not rhetorical arguments,"
"This is a prime time to intervene and address emerging concerns,"
Goldston said. He noted that the public and members of Congress
have only a vague understanding of nanotechnology and have not
yet developed any preconceived notions about the field. "People
are still willing to listen," he said, adding that Congress is
looking for open discussion to increase its understanding of the
To help the flow of scientific-based information to policymakers,
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) announced at the meeting that he was
setting up a congressional nanotechnology caucus. Allen was a
cosponsor of the Senate version of the Nanotechnology R&D
Act of 2003. The nonpartisan caucus will give scientists and engineers
a point of contact on Capitol Hill and will keep nanotechnology
issues in front of Congress.
"You need to be the spokesmen and spokeswomen for the field,"
Allen told the meeting attendees. In addition to providing information
to Congress, researchers must ensure that the public understands
the emerging technology, he said. "People in the general public
are still susceptible to misinformation," he pointed out. Allen,
like many of the presenters, singled out Michael Crichton's novel
"Prey" as a common source for misguided myths relating to nanotechnology.
"We cannot put our heads in the sand and ignore arising fears
and anxieties," Honda said. "It is part of our responsibility
as policymakers and scientists to bring the public along as technology
To accomplish this, scientists must be aggressive in their
local communities as well as with policymakers, Bond noted. Scientists
must speak up and correct misguided reports when they see them.
A number of meeting speakers cited the study presented at the
American Chemical Society national meeting held last month in
Anaheim, Calif., as an example of why researchers must play an
active role in responding to incorrect media reports. The study--done
by Eva Oberdörster, a toxicologist at Southern Methodist
University, Dallas--looked at the toxicity of aqueous C60
and found that juvenile largemouth bass living in an aquarium
filled with C60-contaminated water experienced brain
April 5, page 14).
There was a general feeling that much of the media coverage
misrepresented the study's results. Although that coverage may
have been alarmist and disappointing from a scientific standpoint,
Commerce's Bond noted that there is more to the story.
"This study proves that our system of checks and balances is
working to protect public health and the environment," Bond said.
Because the work was done using federal funds, Bond also pointed
out that the research is a good example of the government's commitment
to ensuring public health by studying the potential negative implications
It is important not to let media reports or science fiction
drive nanotechnology, Wyden explained. Rather than freeze research
on the basis of unsupported fears or preliminary research results,
more studies should be funded to gain a more complete understanding
about the implications of small science, he said. In other words,
the field should be driven solely by the scientific and technological
To this end, researchers must help the public separate scientific
fact from science fiction, Marburger said. An important path to
help increase the public's understanding of nanotechnology and
reduce the propagation of myths is education and public outreach.
Many meeting participants believe that education in nanotech
must begin as early as possible. NSF's Roco explained that education
and awareness of the field is already reaching younger audiences.
For example, when NNI was formed, only a few graduate classes
were offered in the area, he noted. Courses began to appear at
the undergraduate level in 2002 and at the high school level in
2003. By 2005, he said, nanotechnology concepts will begin to
appear in elementary education.
THE SHIFT to earlier education will require
a "reversal of the pyramid of learning," where science education
is not based on single disciplines but rather is a presentation
of unified scientific concepts, Roco explained. The change in
philosophy will help create excitement in children about science
early on, before the educational focus shifts to an individual
discipline, he said.
"We are moving very fast, and educational institutions may
not be ready" to embrace the new material, Roco said. Although
this rapid movement may lead to some resistance, it is important
to get nanotechnology into the schools to prepare the next generation
to enter the workforce.
Integrating nanotechnology into the education system also has
the support of policymakers, who all note that the potential economic
gain from nanotechnology can only be obtained with an educated
workforce. And to do that, students need to learn about small
science in school. "We can't have big-league nanotechnology with
little-league education," Wyden said.
As nanotechnology begins to work its way into formal education,
other types of outreach programs are increasing the public's understanding
of nanotechnology. One example of a successful outreach program
is the traveling exhibit "It's
a Nano World." The program was developed and funded by the
Nanobiotechnology Center (NBTC)--an NNI center of excellence based
at Cornell University--through a grant from NSF. The program is
targeted at five- to eight-year-old children, explained NBTC Director
Barbara A. Baird. Baird is also a professor of chemistry and chemical
biology at Cornell.
"The purpose is to introduce children and their families to
the biological wonders of the nanoworld," Baird explained. Created
with input from scientists, the 3,000-sq-ft exhibit is portable
and is currently on display at Disney's Epcot Center, in Orlando,
Another exhibit developed to educate children about nanotechnology
Developed by James Gimzewski, chemistry professor at the University
of California, Los Angeles, and Victoria Vesna, design and media
arts professor at UCLA, the 10,000-sq-ft exhibit is housed in
the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Boone Children's Gallery.
The exhibit is highly interactive, Gimzewski explained. "The
idea is to make nanotechnology something a 10-year-old could enjoy,"
he noted. "It's just you and the environment."
As nanotechnology continues to mature as a field, education
and other outreach programs will become increasingly important.
"The work you are doing will have an impact on lots of people,"
Allen told the audience. "Ensuring the public understands the
impacts rests with you," he added.
"The time for action is now," Bond stated. "We need your help
to tell the positive story of nanotechnology" and to prevent fanning
the flame of fear, he said.
NSF gets biggest cut of National Nanotechnology Initiative funds
|National Science Foundation
|Department of Defense
|Department of Energy
|National Institutes of Health
|National Institute of Standards & Technology
|National Aeronautics & Space Administration
|Environmental Protection Agency
|Department of Agriculture
|Department of Justice
|Transportation Security Administration
|NOTE: Fiscal years. a Actual. b Estimated. c
Proposed. SOURCE: National Nanotechnology Initiative