No full loaf for nanotechnology

The White House has laid the groundwork for a multiagency initiative to

research ways to control materials as small as a single atom. But participating

agencies are still waiting for a large-scale commitment from Congress to

fund the $495 million program in fiscal 2001.

In early August, the White House's National Science and Technology Council

released the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) implementation plan,

which describes how the five-year research initiative will be coordinated

and details its challenges and goals. So far, the Defense Department is

the only participating agency to win approval of its portion of the program's

funding — $110 million. Experts say chances are slim that other key agencies

will receive funding at their requested levels.

President Clinton identified nanotechnology research as a top priority

in his fiscal 2001 budget request to Congress. Nanotechnology has the potential

to produce lighter, more efficient materials and to improve delivery of

medical drugs in small doses directly to the intended body organ. The NSTC

report, "National Nanotechnology Initiative: The Initiative and Its Implementation

Plan," further develops the administration's strategy for investing in nanoscale

research (see box, Page 80).

According to the plan (www.nano. gov/nni.htm), the National Science

Foundation will coordinate NNI and prevent redundant research at participating

agencies. A memorandum of understanding is being circulated among the agencies — which, along with DOD and the NSF, includes NASA, the Environmental Protection

Agency and the departments of Commerce, Energy, Transportation and Health

and Human Services.

Although the administration is concerned that some funding crucial to

the start of the initiative might not get approval from Congress when it

returns from recess in September, "you have to be hopeful it could all be

worked out," said Michael Daum, a representative from the Commerce Department

to the White House National Economic Council.

"There's a lot of interest generated by the subject," Daum said. "We're

looking to set it on firm funding to get started, and we needed a good implementation

plan."

One building block is for researchers and government officials to discuss

the potential societal impacts of advances in nanoscale materials, he said.

NSF recently released a solicitation (www.nsf.gov/nano) for up to $74

million worth of nanoscale science and engineering research. The agency

is also accepting nanotechnology research proposals in other NSF programs

that will enhance existing fields, said Mihail Roco, senior adviser at

NSF and co-chairman of the nanoscale science and engineering subcommittee

of the NSTC.

Meanwhile, the House cut the president's proposed $675 million overall

increase for NSF by $508 million, which would "cripple new initiatives in

information technology research, nanotechnology and biocomplexity," according

to a June report from the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The NNI

portion of the request was $217 million.

NASA requested $20 million, but the agency's funding bill — which, like

NSF, is part of the Veterans and Housing and Urban Development appropriations —

still is unmarked by the Senate.

The Commerce Department requested $18 million for nanotechnology in

2001. The House eliminated all funding, and the Senate approved $2 million.

At DOE, the House stripped all new initiatives out of the Office of

Science, which includes NNI, and the Senate supported adding $20 million

to begin the NNI research but did not have enough money to include it in

the bill.

"If money comes back into the appropriations in September, we are optimistic

we would receive funding," said Patricia Dehmer, associate director of the

Office of Science for Basic Energy Sciences at DOE.

Dehmer said that although DOE has long been a leader in materials research,

the NNI funding is necessary to combine expertise in chemistry, materials,

computing and bioscience to develop materials with nanoscale properties.

NNI is a good example of an initiative that started in the science and

engineering community and demonstrated enough potential to become part of

the president's budget proposal, said Bruce Don, director of the Science

and Technology Policy Institute at the Rand think tank.

But research such as NNI faces tough sledding in Congress as it squares

off against housing and veterans programs. "There's always a tough tradeoff

between fixing today's problems and getting a hold of tomorrow's promise,"

Don said.

Featured

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.