Nanotechnology heads into the big money

What's really needed in this field is some trenchant market research that spells out the opportunities for entrepreneurs..

May 1st, 2004

I believe it was the late, great Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen who said (of government spending), "a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon, you're talking about real money." Well, we appear to be reaching just that point with generous federal funding of research into, of all things, nanotechnology. I had little idea that with the passing of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act we would be handing over almost $4 billion of taxpayers' money for nanotechnology R&D. Phew!

This act of government largesse, which quietly became law last December, passed the House and the Senate with overwhelming support. You can read the text at www.gpo.gov. I had no idea that we were supporting such research but, gentle reader, read on.

This legislation puts into law programs and activities supported by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), one of the "President's highest multi-agency research and development priorities." The authorization bill calls for $3.7 billion for nanotechnology R&D for FY 2005–2008 for five of the 16 agencies in the existing NNI: the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The legislation also requires the creation of research centers, education and training efforts, studies into the societal and ethical consequences of nanotechnology, and activities directed toward transferring technology into the marketplace. Finally, the bill sets up advisory committees and regular program reviews and delineates additional tasks for the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. Of course you knew that such an office existed.

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) cosponsored the House legislation. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and George Allen (R-VA) were the Senate cosponsors. Note the bipartisan sponsorships.

"The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act is important recognition for this new field of science and technology for the progress and future of the U.S. economy and society in the next decades," trumpets Mihail C. Roco, chairman of the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Committee, and senior advisor for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation. There's more about the NNI at www.nano.gov.

Although Congress must pass an appropriations bill for the NNI activities mandated in the legislation before funds will be allocated, that would appear to be a minor hurdle. The President's 2004 budget provides $849 million for the multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative, a 9.8 percent increase over 2003. Hey, 10 percent per annum sounds good to me.

John Marburger, Science Advisor to the President and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, has been busy fielding questions about nanotechnology. Speaking to a gaggle of social scientists last December, Marburger noted that his instructions were to provide a "visionary presentation focusing on the future of the field of nanotechnology from the perspective of the federal government." Marburger went on to opine that "nanotechnology is not so much a 'field' as a word—a neologism—that has been pressed into service to symbolize the status of a very large and important sector of contemporary science."

Despite neologisms to the right and neologisms to the left, what's really needed in this field is some trenchant market research that spells out the opportunities for entrepreneurs. Of course, you might profit by reading such works as Plunkett's Nanotechnology & MEMS Industry Almanac, due to be published this month (www.plunkettresearch.com). Federal money? I don't think so.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Online Editor Emeritus
jnbairstow@verizon.net

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