Will the Sequester Derail U.S. Nanotech R&D?

Analysts are still trying to determine the impact of the US budget sequestration, which went into effect on 1 March.The sequester—as it has been dubbed—requires across-the-board mandatory federal budgets cuts.

Some programs are already feeling the pinch and now one of the premier U.S. nanotechnology scientists, A. Paul Alivisatos, in comments he made at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in New Orleans this week expressed concern about the budget cuts imposed by the sequester on nanotechnology funding.

“The National Science Foundation announced that they will issue a thousand fewer new grants this year because of sequestration,” said Alivisatos, in an ACS press release. “What it means in practice is that an entire generation of early career scientists, some of our brightest and most promising scientists, will not have the funding to launch their careers and begin research properly, in the pathway that has established the United States as leader in nanotechnology research. It will be a setback, perhaps quite serious, for our international competitiveness in this key field.”

If Alivisatos is correct, this would be an unfortunate way to make cuts in federal funding of nanotechnology research. Of course, this has been the concern about the sequester from the time it was first proposed: It would make cuts indiscriminately, leaving wasteful programs largely intact while hacking into useful ones.

To give some context, US government funding of nanotechnology research through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has been on a fairly steady yearly increase since 2001 (except for a brief hiccup in 2010),  cumulatively accounting for US $14 billion in spending between 2001-2011.

The timing is indeed unfortunate. Much of the initial funding was used to build out the laboratory infrastructure to support the new line of research. So far, this has mainly enriched the construction industry and the microscopy companies that equip these facilities, investments that inevitably take time to bear fruit in terms of nanotechnology research and products. Now that the funding can actually go to supporting research projects, the crunch is on and the new labs will likely run below their full capacity.

There is always room for the argument that reassessing and reallocating resources can help make nanotechnology more efficient and productive, something observers have pointed out in NASA taking on less of its own nanotechnology research and outsourcing it to other government organizations. But it's not always easy to tell which fundamental research projects will turn out to have been the most productive, and worse, the timing of these cuts could be extremely painful as they occur at a critical moment for U.S. nanotechnology.

Back in 2010, during the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) ten-year review of the NNI, Ed Penhoet, the founder of Chiron, explained that after 10 years of funding nanotechnology we have reached an “inflection point” where developing “nanomanufacturing” will be the key to seeing nanotechnology expand into more commercial products.

After years or priming the pumps for nanotechnology research only to shut down the pumps just at the “inflection point”, or, to change the analogy, when all that research fuel is ready to be ignited, seems a terrible waste. ‘Penny wise and pound foolish’ is the expression that keeps ringing in my ears

As Alivisatos argues, even a five percent reduction could “do maximal damage to our ability to be globally competitive in the future."

Photo: iStockphoto

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

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