Will the US Congress Reauthorize the National Nanotechnology Initiative?

While the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is now 10 ten years old, it wasn’t until 2003 when President George W. Bush signed into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act that a statutory framework was established for the NNI and appropriations for it were authorized through fiscal year 2008.

Since 2008, the US House of Representatives has passed two bills that essentially amend the 2003 act and reauthorize the NNI, however, the US Senate has not acted on either. This all brings us to where we are today in which the NNI has received annual appropriation bills that have financed it since 2008.

Last month, the US Congress’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing on nanotechnology in which a number of witnesses urged the NNI be reauthorized to ensure that the nanotechnology initiative in the US doesn’t falter.

One of the witnesses was Dr. Clayton Teague, who has served as Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) since 2003, recently announced his retirement. It is my personal belief that because of individuals like Dr. Teague it has been possible for the US to establish a strong foundation in developing nanotechnology by providing consistent leadership over an extended period of time that is actually quite rare in other countries attempts to mimic the US nanotechnology strategy.

While it’s not clear that the failure of the US Senate to act on Congressional bills will adversely affect NNI funding, it is troubling to think that in the deficit-cutting mania inside the Beltway the NNI might fall victim.

President Obama has made a budget request of $2.1 billion for the NNI, which is $200 million more than was enacted in the FY 2010 budget, but worryingly FY 2011 did see a drop in funding from 2010—the first time in the NNI’s history where funding has actually gone down from the previous year.

I am not much of a believer in the “nanotechnology race”, or more specifically that one government spending more than another will necessarily translate into successful “nano-economy”, if you will. But the lack of reauthorization of the NNI does present some troubling long-term concerns for the future of nanoscience research in the US. Oddly enough, the UK-based Nanotechnology Industries Association has offered an outline of what the troubling outcomes might be here.

But if my guess is right, the NNI was established and funded over the last 10 years not so much as to ensure good science but to establish a so-called “nano-economy” in the US—the next “Silicon Valley”. If that is indeed the case, maybe the free market types will step in actually invest in something other than oil commodities and establish that long talked about economic boom brought to us by nanotechnology.

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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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