Going big on going small

Congress mulls how to reassert federal support for nanotechnology as experts suggest researchers are less likely to ply their trade here if funding continues to wane.

Nanotechnology hard drive

Congress holds regular hearings to try to keep policy attuned to technological advances outside the Beltway. Perhaps in no other field do lawmakers squint harder to stay in focus than with nanotechnology, where breakthroughs can be missed if you blink.

Nanotechnology works with matter ranging from 1 to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. The measurements are miniscule, but the dollars and the stakes are not.

The United States outspent all other governments in nanotechnology in 2012, with $2.1 billion from federal and state sources, according to Lux Research. Yet some experts and lawmakers worry that funding could be better directed toward retaining talent and boosting growth, fearing that countries -- especially China -- are gaining ground in the field.

Federal funding for nanotechnology is in relative decline, and American professors and foreign students are less likely to ply their trade in the United States as a result, James Tour, a nanotechnology expert at Rice University, told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade on July 29.

"The trolling by foreign universities [of] top U.S. faculty has become rampant due to the [decline] of U.S. funding levels on a per-faculty basis," said Tour, a professor at Rice's Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology.

"The brain drain is not something we can recover. The impact of what has already been lost will last decades," he said.

Milan Mrksich of Northwestern University worried that the U.S. patent system lags behind nanotechnology advances, which can have a quick discovery-to-market time. "It typically requires five years to obtain a patent, which means that new companies do not have patent protection as they move towards introduction of a product, which encourages competition from competitors outside the United States," he said in his submitted testimony.

Subcommittee Chairman Lee Terry (R-Neb.) nonetheless believes "nanotechnology is poised to drive the next surge of economic growth across all sectors," according to his opening statement at the hearing. Terry told reporters afterward that his panel is still exploring the issue and does not have immediate plans to introduce legislation.

The White House has shown a steady interest in nanotechnology. In May 2012, President Barack Obama used the State University of New York's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering as a backdrop for a speech that touted job creation in the U.S. high-tech manufacturing sector. Obama's fiscal 2015 budget request called for about $1.5 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Cumulative NNI spending since fiscal 2001 – covering the Obama and George W. Bush administrations -- is about $21 billion, including the fiscal 2015 request, according to the White House.

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