Nanotech: big-picture fail?

While the U.S. government’s 10-year-old program for nurturing the young science of nanotechnology has been highly successful, the nation’s leadership in this nascent industry is being threatened by several aggressively investing competitors such as China, South Korea, and the European Union. That’s according to a new report by an independent research firm prepared for the president and Congress.

The report concludes that the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)—which has supplied $12 billion in investments from 25 federal agencies over the past decade—has had a “catalytic and substantial impact” on the growth of U.S. nanotechnology innovation and should be continued. However, the report warns, the United States stands to surrender its global lead in nanotechnology if it does not address some pressing needs.

Key among those is a need to increase investments in product commercialization and technology transfer to help ensure that new nanotech methods and products make it to the marketplace, along with strengthening NNI commitments to explore, in a more orderly fashion, environmental, health, and safety issues.

“It is important not only to continue increasing the federal investment in environmental, health, and safety research but to do so in a coordinated way so the most important questions are answered first,” said Ed Penhoet, co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s (PCAST) National Nanotechnology initiative Working Group. “That approach will ensure safety, bolster public confidence, and provide a clear path to market for new companies and their products.”

A few of the report’s recommendations include: increasing the focus of NNI programs on commercialization of products and increasing NNI’s investment in nanomanufacturing by 100% over the next five years; improving the coordination and rationalization of the nation’s approach to identifying environmental and health risks that may be associated with nanotechnology; developing a coordinated strategic research plan to fill knowledge gaps and the decision-making needs of government and industry; and strengthening the National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office in part by increasing its agency-contributed budget to about $5 million from the current $3 million.

To read the full report, go to: www.whitehouse.gov/ostp/pcast Clare Goldsberry

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