The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) held a public hearing last Friday, March 12th to present its report reviewing the last 10 years of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. This hearing is available for download as an archived webcast on the PCAST link provided above. PCAST’s full report is not yet available. However, its major recommendations include focusing future funding at addressing the manufacturing of nano-enabled products as opposed to solely funding basic research while still not abandoning basic research. As Ed Penhoet described it, 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.
Somewhat surprisingly was the focus both in the presentation and in the comments afterwards on how to best measure nanotechnology’s economic impact both in terms of market value but also in job creation.
Curiously, Russia last year, after releasing a slew of bewildering market impact numbers, decided to start tracking its own nanotechnology to combat the confusion surrounding how much its nanotechnology is actually worth. I haven’t heard how successful they have been at this program, but it could easily improve on some of the preposterous numbers that had circulated previously.
The emphasis on the apparent recent realization that sometimes a few pennies of a nanomaterial is measured as being the value of the entire product makes itself evident once again. While noting that a few pennies of nanoparticles that go into a nanocoating for an automobile should not be valued at the full price of an automobile--because quite clearly the automobile could be manufactured, sold and driven without any of those nanoparticles--the argument does not hold up as well when discussing drug formulations that would not function without the nanoparticle. We can only hope that the government is able to make this not-so-subtle distinction while others clearly cannot.
As far as the government moving some of its funding focus beyond basic research into manufacturing, I have to say I am somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, the funding mechanisms for emerging technologies are broken, but on the other hand it is a bit of a concern that government-backed funding will have to be the cure. Just looking at how government investors always get the short-end of the stick in many investments makes me non-too-sure that this is the most efficient use of capital. But this funding gap needs to be addressed if all the basic research funding is ever going to have a return on investment.
Another issue that seemed to preoccupy the PCAST report and the ensuing comments was the idea of brain drain. While US universities train many of the world’s scientists in nanotechnology, a large number of those students head home to their own countries finding it difficult to get the necessary working permits to stay in the US. One of the solutions proffered was “staple a green card to their diploma”.
Not an altogether bad idea, but what seemed oddly absent was addressing the issue of why aren’t born-and-bred US citizens getting advanced degrees in science and engineering that would be useful in nanotechnology. We'll see if recently introduced legislation has any impact on this issue.The underlying threat that seemed to be informing the urgency of PCAST’s review was that the US was falling behind Europe and China in nanotechnology. While this gets the attention of politicos on either side of the aisle, it remains a somewhat distorted way to look at the development of nanotechnology both in terms of its fundamental science as well as its commercial development.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.