PCAST Review of the Proposed National Nanotechnology Initiative

PCAST believes that the benefits to the United States of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) are compelling, and we endorse the fundinglevel, balance, and mechanism recommended by Interagency Working Groupon NanoScience, Engineering and Technology (IWGN).

Our Review
A PCAST Nanotechnology Panel, composed of industry and university expertsand chaired by Dr. Charles Vest, carefully reviewed the report entitledNational Nanotechnology Initiative Leading to the Next Industrial Revolution,written by the National Science and Technical Council (NSTC) Committeeon Technology’s Interagency Working Group on NanoScience, Engineering andTechnology (IWGN).  This report frames a new interagency R&D initiative,the NNI, starting in Fiscal Year 2001, and proposes a 5-year funding plan,appropriately distributed across both agencies and funding mechanisms.The NNI has an essential exploratory and scientific component and focuseson fundamental aspects of nanoscale science and engineering that collectivelyhave high potential to eventually lead to important applications, processes,and products. These outcomes will strengthen both scientific disciplinesand create critical interdisciplinary opportunities. Our Panel reviewedthe technical merits and the funding profiles in the NNI proposal and supportsthe IWGN recommendation for a substantial budget increase in Fiscal Year2001 with sustained funding in this area.

The NNI research portfolio is balanced well across fundamental research,grand challenges, centers and networks of excellence, research infrastructure,and education and training. The NNI also provides mechanisms for buildingworkforce skills necessary for future industrial and academic positions,proposes cross-disciplinary networks and partnerships, includes a mechanismfor disseminating information, and suggests tools for encouraging smallbusinesses to exploit nanotechnology opportunities. If it is implemented,we recommend that the NNI be annually reviewed by a non-government advisorycommittee, such as the National Research Council, to monitor and assessprogress toward its goals.

Nanotechnology is the future.
Nanotechnology is the builder's new frontier one where propertiesand phenomena are very different than those utilized in traditional technologies.Nature builds things with atomic precision.  Every living cell isfilled with natural nanomachines of DNA, RNA, proteins, etc., which interactto produce tissues and organs. Humans are now learning to build non-biologicalmaterials and machines on the nanometer scale, imitating the elegance andeconomy of nature.  This embryonic capability may portend a new industrialrevolution.  In

the coming decades, nanotechnology will enable us to manufacture devicesthat conduct electricity efficiently, compute, move, sense their environment,and repair themselves.

Nanostructures will revolutionize materials and devices of all sorts,particularly in  nanoelectronics and computer technology, medicineand health, biotechnology and agriculture, as well as national security. For example, we anticipate computers with a thousand-fold increase in powerbut which draw a millionth the amount of electricity, materials far strongerthan steel but with ten percent the weight, and devices that can detecttumors when they are only clusters of a few cells.

It may eventually be possible to develop technologies for renewable,clean energy; to replace metals with lightweight, recyclable polymericnanocomposites; to provide low-cost access to space; and to develop newclasses of pharmaceuticals. Investments in nanotechnology have the potentialto spawn the growth of future industrial productivity.  When alliedwith the biosciences, nanotechnology will accelerate the development ofearly detection instruments for physicians, as well as the developmentof noninvasive diagnosis and medical treatment. It will also lower thecost of pure water and healthy food for the world's population.

The United States cannot afford to be in second place in this endeavor.The country that leads in discovery and implementation of nanotechnologywill have great advantage in the economic and military scene for many decadesto come.

A bold, Federally funded national program is needed now.
Nanotechnology, which is based on phenomena first observed and characterizedin the 1980s, is now emerging as an important new frontier.  Direct,strategic investments made now in fundamental science and engineering willposition the U.S. science and technology (S&T) community to discoverand apply nanoscale phenomena, and transfer them to industry.  NanoscaleS&T today is roughly where the fundamental R&D on which transistorsare based was in the late 1940s or early 1950s.  Most foreseeableapplications are still 10 or 20 years away from a commercially significantmarket; however, industry generally invests only in developing cost-competitiveproducts in the 3 to 5 year timeframe.   It is difficult forindustry management to justify to their shareholders the large investmentsin long-term, fundamental research needed to make nanotechnology-basedproducts possible.   Furthermore, the highly interdisciplinarynature of some of the needed research is incompatible with many currentcorporate structures.

There is a clear need for Federal support at this time.  Appropriately,Federal and academic investments in nanotechnology R&D to date haveevolved in open competition with other research topics, resulting in somefragmentation and duplication of efforts, which is natural at this stage. Going forward, however, nanotechnology will require a somewhat more coherent,sustained investment in long-term research.   The NNI would supportcritical segments of this research and increase the national infrastructurenecessary to conduct it.

International Activity in Nanotechnology
The United States does not dominate nanotechnology research. Yet westrongly believe that the United States must lead in this area to ensureeconomic and national security leadership.
Compared to our nation, other countries are investing much more inrelevant areas of ongoing research.  Many other countries have launchedmajor initiatives in this area, because their scientists and national leadershave determined that nanotechnology has the potential to be a major economicfactor during the next several decades.  Japan and Europe are supportingscientific work of the same quality and breadth of that done in the UnitedStates.  Unlike in the other post-war technological revolutions, theUnited States does not enjoy an early lead in nanotechnology.

We must act now to put in place an infrastructure for nanoscale researchthat is equal to that which exists anywhere in the world.  A suitableU.S. infrastructure will enable us to collaborate appropriately, as wellas compete, with other nations.  Without the NNI, there is a realdanger that our nation could fall behind other countries.  To ensureleadership in the future, the United States must make a large and sustainedinvestment in this area.

Nanotechnology will inspire the public and the next generation workforce.
Our future workforce in S&T is decreasing, in part because fartoo many young people perceive that action is no longer in the physicalsciences and engineering, and do not see how S&T connects to the worldas they know it.  Yet chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, andmaterials research are at the core of nanotechnology, which likely willplay a dominant role in future decades. The NNI should parallel investmentsin R&D with a creative and entrepreneurial program that offers youngpeople a truly interdisciplinary education, and that prepares the nextgeneration of researchers and industrial leaders.

As nanotechnology develops, the core areas of the physical sciences,engineering and biomedicine in our nation's universities will become muchmore intimately coupled to each other.  Future research efforts inthese fields need a far better integration among each other and to industryand society as a whole.  The relevance and inherent excitement ofnanoscale R&D should attract young men and women to science as neverbefore and also create exciting and important career options for them.

Nanotechnology and Global Challenges
In the next century, the world population will likely grow to overten billion.  Without revolutionary advances in environmentally sustainabletechnologies, global society will struggle with the implications of thisgrowth.   Nanotechnology, as broadly supported by the NNI, hasthe potential to develop lightweight, recyclable materials and energy efficientdevices that will contribute to such sustainability.  Therefore, theUnited States should move to develop this area quickly, not only for economicbenefit, but also for its potential contribution to a more sustainablefuture.

In closing, we note that when radically new technologies are developed,social and ethical issues can arise.  Accordingly, we recommend thata modest amount be set aside for the study of such implications of nanotechnology.

President's Committee of Advisors
on Science and Technology
1600 PennsylvaniaAve, N.W
Washington, DC 20502

National Nanotechnology Initiative - PCAST

PCAST Review of the Proposed National Nanotechnology Initiative

PCAST Letter to the President Endorsing a National Nanotechnology

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