A recent study out of Rice University ("NASA's Relationship with Nanotechnology: Past, Present and Future Challenges"; pdf) points out that NASA is “the only U.S. federal agency to scale back investment in this area [nanotechnology]”.
The numbers in the report, produced by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice, are alarming: “NASA reduced annual nanotechnology R&D expenditures from $47 million to $20 million.” And the Ames Research Center in California, which had set up its Center for Nanotechnology five years before the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was even established, had its staff reduced from 60 researchers with an $18 million budget down to 10 researchers and a $2 million budget.
The Rice report points to two events leading to this decline in NASA’s nanotechnology funding. In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia accident put NASA’s program under scrutiny, leading to a National Academies review of its program. Then in 2004, President George W. Bush presented his “Vision for Space Exploration”, which, while consisting of some lofty goals such as a manned mission to the planet Mars, actually cut NASA budgets in technology R&D.
Not all the news about NASA’s nanotechnology budget is quite as dire. According to the report, the “NNI reports a 29-percent increase in NASA nanotechnology-specific R&D in 2012—from $17 million in 2011 to $23 million in 2012.”
This latest upswing is good news, but have the previous eight years in cuts to nanotechnology research really been that detrimental to NASA’s space exploration? It’s not really clear whether there has been a negative impact on NASA.
NASA’s total research appropriations in the years between 2003 and 2010 decreased more than 75 percent, from $6.62 billion to $1.55 billion. So if there’s been a perceived—or real—decline in NASA’s space exploration it may have just as easily come from the cuts throughout its entire technology R&D budget.
Also, even as NASA's funding declined in those eight years, the U.S. government’s overall funding of nanotechnology research nearly doubled. NASA’s interests in nanotechnology are somewhat removed from the areas of energy, medicine and materials that have been the focus of the government's nanotechnology funding strategies.
And although NASA has not been high on the U.S. government’s list of recipients for nanotechnology funding, nanotechnology has continued to find its way into NASA programs. Nanomaterials developed by Lockheed Martin and Nanocomp Inc. were integrated into the Juno spacecraft destined for Jupiter. Is it necessary for NASA to develop the nanotechnology in order for it to improve NASA spacecraft?
While the numbers may be somewhat alarming, the issue with NASA’s decline as a leader in U.S. nanotechnology research has really just been a reallocation of funding to different agencies and a move towards outsourcing some of the nanomaterial development that had previously been done at NASA labs. It might be even a good thing not only for other technologies such as solar energy and drug delivery, but also for NASA itself by focusing resources in other areas to advance its space program.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.