APS News

A Call to Action on Nanotech Initiative

Announced by then-President Clinton in January 2000, the National Nanotechnology Initiative has enjoyed strong federal support and funding in the first one year of its existence. However, the fledgling program could be in jeopardy because of expected decreases in funding for FY2002, according to the three speakers at a special evening session on the topic at the APS March Meeting in Seattle. Participating in the session were: Mildred Dresselhaus, former Director of the Office of Science at DOE, who has since returned to her professorship at MIT; Lance Haworth of NSF; and James Murday of the Department of Defense. A theme common to all the talks was the need for action on the part of the scientific community to ensure continued strong funding in this area.

The Nanotechnology Initiative is intended to support long-term nanoscale R&D leading to potential breakthroughs in such diverse areas as materials and manufacturing, nanoelectronics, medicine, the environment, energy, chemicals, biotechnology, agriculture, information technology and national security. "The ability to work at the molecular level is leading to unprecedented understanding and control over the fundamental building blocks of all physical things," said Dresselhaus.

However, she emphasized that the nanoscale is not merely another step in the ongoing process of miniaturization; materials in that size range exhibit characteristics that traditional models and theories cannot explain, and hence, "Developments in these emerging fields are likely to change the way almost everything - from vaccines to computers to automobile tires - is designed and made," she said. Examples of specific applications include the use of giant magnetoresistance in magnetic storage applications; nanostructured catalysts; drug delivery systems; nanocomposites and nanoparticle reinforced polymers; molecular electronics; biodetection in the interests of national security; and water purification and desalinization.

The initiative includes a series of nanotechnology research centers, expected to play an important role in the development and use of specific tools, and in promoting partnership. Funding is also provided for measurement and instrumentation improvements, with the aim of developing a flexible infrastructure to enable US industry to commercialize the new discoveries and innovations as quickly as possible. And all this will be coordinated among several government agencies with strong traditional support for science and technology. "This is a multi-agency initiative," said Haworth. "It would not be as successful as it has been if it were focused on any one agency alone."

The DOE is planning five nanotechnology research centers at various national laboratories, and the NSF expects to fund additional centers. The DOE has already received funding for the preliminary design of the centers, and Dresselhaus reported that final design could begin as early as 2002 if new funding can be obtained, with construction expected to begin sometime in 2003. The NSF currently funds about 600 nano-related research projects, involving roughly 2500 faculty and students.

However, "To make this initiative a success, we need the same level of funding increases that we've been seeing this past year," said Dresselhaus. APS Executive Officer Judy Franz, who moderated the session, praised the lobbying efforts of APS members last summer, who sent some 2000 letters to their Congressional representatives, joined by members of several other scientific and engineering societies. Their action was rewarded handsomely: the federal science budget increased about 15%, compared to an expected decrease before the letter-writing campaign began.

The Nanoscience Initiative increased from $270 million for FY2000 to $423 million in FY2001, according to Haworth. The NSF receives the largest share of the FY2001 budget for the initiative ($150 million), followed by the Department of Defense ($110 million) and the DOE ($93 million). Other agencies being funded at a lesser scale are NASA, the Department of Commerce, and the National Institutes of Health.

Unfortunately, the current outlook for federal science funding doesn't look quite so rosy. The change in Administration has brought a corresponding change in many major policies, and, said Franz, "The combination of massive tax cuts and substantially increased defense spending is going to a put a squeeze on all other funding"-not just the Nanotechnology Initiative, but science funding across the board.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette