Nanoscale science, engineering, and technology can be characterized as sets of fundamental knowledge and enabling technologies derived from efforts to understand and control the properties and function of matter at the nanoscale dimension—that is, at a scale on the order of one-billionth of a meter, or approximately 1/100,000th of the width of a strand of human hair. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a federal interagency activity established in 2000, aims to expedite the discovery, development, and deployment of nanotechnology in order to achieve responsible and sustainable economic benefits, enhance the quality of life, and promote national security. Requested by Congress (see Appendix A), this report of the National Research Council’s Committee to Review the National Nanotechnology Initiative is an evaluation of the NNI that also considers the current economic impact of nanotechnology and benchmarks the international standing of U.S. nanoscale research and development (R&D). In addition, the report addresses the responsible development of nanotechnology and comments on the feasibility of molecular self-assembly for manufacturing.
THE NNI TODAY
It is important to note that the NNI is not a government research program per se, since it does not distribute research support to individual scientists or R&D centers and consortia. Rather, the NNI is a mechanism, mandated at the highest levels of government, for the coordination of federal research interests in
nanotechnology. Established in 2000, the NNI is relatively young, especially when viewed from the perspective of the typical timescales needed to reap the benefits of research on an emerging technology. The 20- to 40-year period for the development of computing and communications technologies made possible by basic research funded earlier in the 20th century offers an apt comparison. A basic tenet of the committee’s analysis is that the NNI clearly represents a long-term undertaking whose goals and benefits will take time to realize. Moreover, nanotechnology is an enabling technology whose impact may be difficult to determine fully and rigorously even as the technology matures and appears in widely available products. In this report, the committee (1) discusses accomplishments of the NNI to date that augur well for ongoing progress in nanotechnology R&D to benefit the nation and (2) offers recommendations aimed at ensuring an enhanced U.S. capacity to realize and measure discernible benefits, responsibly developed, from nanoscale R&D into the future.
NNI Structure and Goals
The NNI has several management layers that are described in detail in Chapter 1. In summary, the National Science and Technology Council, a cabinet-level committee with a membership drawn from federal agencies across the government, through its Committee on Technology formed the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee to focus on NNI activities. The NSET Subcommittee currently involves more than 20 federal agencies. In FY 2005, 11 agencies reported investments in nanotechnology under the NNI umbrella that totaled about $1.1 billion.1 The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO), established in 2001, provides technical guidance and administrative support to the NSET Subcommittee, facilitates multiagency planning, conducts activities and workshops, and prepares information and reports. In addition, in 2004 the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) was designated by President George W. Bush as the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel (NNAP).2 Chapter 1 discusses the role of the NNAP in more detail.
The NNI has four goals:3
Goal 1: Maintain a world-class research and development program aimed at realizing the full potential of nanotechnology.
Goal 2: Facilitate transfer of new technologies into products for economic growth, jobs, and other public benefit.
Goal 3: Develop educational resources, a skilled workforce, and the supporting infrastructure and tools to advance nanotechnology.
Goal 4: Support responsible development of nanotechnology.
In pursuit of these goals, the NNI has defined seven program component areas (PCAs) that provide a framework by which the participating agencies can better direct, coordinate, and report on their activities.4 As well as supplying coordinating mechanisms, the NNI also provides a forum for research agencies to discuss crosscutting science and policy issues related to the development of nanotechnology.
NNI Accomplishments and Impacts
Notwithstanding the extensive and detailed charge for this study (see Appendix A); the many layers to and multiple participants in the operation of the NNI (see Figure 1-1 in Chapter 1); the fact that data on NNI-related activities, if reported at all, are not reported in a self-consistent manner across the federal agencies; and the breadth and diversity of the science that falls under the umbrella of the NNI, the committee carried out a review of the NNI that focused on assessing the NNI’s progress toward meeting its stated goals and outlining the NNI’s achievements to date. The data gathered in the benchmarking and economic impact parts of the study as detailed in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, respectively, and presentations made at the committee’s workshop on scientific accomplishments gave valuable insight into the positive effects of the NNI. The committee’s analysis and the supporting information gathered during this study are summarized here and provided in more detail in the main body of the report.
NNI Coordination and Its Results
Established to enhance dialog and coordination across nanoscale R&D programs at federal agencies, the NNI has facilitated the following developments,5 among others:
Establishment by the NSET Subcommittee of four interagency working groups—Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications (NEHI); Industry Liaison; Manufacturing; and Nanotechnology Public Engagement—that have promoted cross-agency collaboration such as joint work in manufacturing technologies by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and in explosive vapor detection by the Department of Energy (DOE) and DOD, to name a few, and have facilitated communication among agency officials who might otherwise not have had the opportunity to meet and discover shared interests;
Development of the NSF National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, an integrated partnership of user facilities at 13 campuses across the United States whose mission is to enable rapid advances in nanotechnology
by providing efficient access to facilities for fabrication, synthesis, and characterization;6
Development of the DOE’s network of five new nanoscale science and engineering centers designed to support synthesis, processing, fabrication, and analysis at the nanoscale;7
An abundance of interdisciplinary activity in NNI-related programs, broadening the direction of some research at federal agencies, such as research in the Program of Excellence in Nanotechnology at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute;
Establishment of several NNI-industry consultative boards to facilitate networking and partnerships among R&D organizations, industry sectors, and government agencies;8
Policy impacts at the state level as a result of increased coordination at the federal level, such as establishment in 2000 of the California NanoSystems Institute, in which the state of California invested $100 million and federal and industry funds totaled $250 million, to provide a multidisciplinary environment in materials science, molecular electronics, quantum computing, optical networking, and molecular medicine designed to stimulate crosscutting nanoscale R&D;
Programmatic and budget redirection within agencies attributable to NNI coordination outcomes, such as the FY 2005 refocusing of the Environmental Protection Agency’s nanotechnology resources on studies of the toxicity of nanomaterials; and
Establishment by the NNI-participating agencies of joint programs and exploration of new paradigms for federal investments, despite recent funding constraints and little new R&D funding over the last few years. In some NNI agencies the process of strategic planning and identifying the seven PCAs has been important for engaging the interest of and securing support from various intra-agency components for nanoscale R&D programs.
In summary, considerable evidence indicates that the NNI is successfully coordinating nanoscale R&D efforts and interests across the federal government; catalyzing cooperative research and technology development across a spectrum of disciplines from engineering and the physical sciences to biosciences and biomedicine; and opening a host of new opportunities for scientific discoveries at the nanoscale with, for example, a suite of nanoscale national facilities, laboratories, and research support programs (see Box 1-3 in Chapter 1 for some examples of NNI-related centers). In addition, the NNI-participating agencies have made significant progress toward establishing a national R&D infrastructure to support innovation at the nanoscale, as detailed in Chapter 1. Much of this operational suc-
cess has been enabled by the effective communication and coordination fostered by the NSET Subcommittee and the NNCO. The committee thus concluded that increased interagency coordination—which has enhanced the development of interdisciplinary research, led to improvements in the R&D infrastructure, and stimulated new areas in research—is an important impact of the NNI.
Benchmarking of U.S. International Standing and Economic Impact of Nanotechnology R&D
As discussed in more detail in Chapter 2, benchmarking information gathered by the committee indicates that the United States is serving a leadership role within the nanotechnology R&D communities but that the U.S. lead is facing significant and increasing international competition. Despite the lack of uniformity in countries’ methods of calculating expenditures and allocating budgets, the committee compared U.S. public spending on R&D with spending by other governments and found that in general terms spending in Japan and spending across the European Union for nanoscale R&D are each comparable to the current annual U.S. investment of $1 billion in nanotechnology and nanoscience.
Country-by-country analyses of data on the number of papers published in leading scientific journals and on the number of patents awarded indicate significant growth worldwide in nanotechnology R&D and related intellectual property activity (see the section “Benchmarking Output: Indicators of Outcomes from Investment in Nanotechnology” in Chapter 2 for more detail). As a percentage of nanoscience and nanoengineering published papers, the fraction originating from the United States declined from 40 percent in the early 1990s to less than 30 percent in 2004, whereas U.S.-based entities continued to lead in the number of U.S. patents awarded.9
Currently, reliable data are not available that would allow linking technology transfer with confidence to specific NNI-related research programs, although the committee did discern positive trends in, for instance, patents awarded, venture capital activities, and the emergence of new small businesses (see the section “Technology Transfer” in Chapter 3). Looking at the economic impact of nanotechnology more broadly, as discussed in detail in Chapter 3, the committee concluded that it is too early to quantify the economic impact of nanotechnology. Neither have data been collected nor metrics developed that would enable a rigorous analysis of the economic impacts of nanoscale R&D. Moreover, as both an enabling and a disruptive technology, nanotechnology can be expected to have applications and effects that extend beyond a specific industry or market sector, leading to new products as well as improving already-available products. Yet it is clear that the promise of significant benefits in many areas of societal importance—in medicine, energy
applications, national security, and so on—has led countries to invest billions of dollars globally in nanotechnology R&D.
NEXT STEPS—REALIZING THE PROMISE OF THE NNI
The federal investments in nanoscale R&D of the past several years are now beginning to bear fruit, providing a framework for continuing growth and achievement. NNI-related R&D, including cutting-edge basic research, is laying the groundwork for fundamental discoveries and innovation essential to the production of valuable and marketable new technologies, processes, and techniques. Full exploitation of nanotechnology, however, will require sustained commitments, consistent public and private support, and realistic expectations regarding returns on investment. To translate scientific excellence into economically viable technological products requires that policies and programs be in place that facilitate and also capitalize on the participation of both the public and the private sectors. Achieving and sustaining future advances will depend on productive partnerships among government, industry, and academia; new investments at the federal and state levels; and renewed commitments to both research and education. To enhance the prospects for continuing U.S. progress and leadership in nanoscale science and technology, the committee offers several recommendations based on findings developed in the course of its meetings and information gathered at its workshops.
Maintaining Support for the NNI
The committee found that the significant U.S. investment in the NNI to date has set the stage for ongoing valuable advances at the nanoscale by U.S. scientists and engineers over the next decade. Greater than the sum of its parts, the NNI is successfully establishing R&D programs with wider impact than could have been expected from separate agency funding without coordination. A multidisciplinary collaborative approach has enabled the NNI to advance basic research for the creation of foundational knowledge, support targeted applied research for high-impact applications, and establish new infrastructure for continued growth of interdisciplinary programs. Federal investments under the NNI are developing the investigative R&D tools—facilities and instruments that enable discovery and development—particularly unique, expensive, or large-scale tools beyond the means of a single organization. The NNI has also created interdisciplinary linkages that will be a lasting legacy of the initiative. In addition, the committee believes that federal agencies have been motivated by their participation in NNI activities to establish priorities, coordinate programs, and leverage resources to a degree that has proved very effective.
At a time of restrained R&D budgets, the committee stresses the importance of balancing federal support in pursuit of shorter-term research goals with longer-term R&D programs when budgets are being prioritized. Achieving a balanced program will require that federal support for basic nanoscale research not be compromised in favor of applied shorter-term technology work. Basic research and applied research are equally important, each with a different characteristic timescale within which benefits can be realized and goals reached. Two essential inputs to establishing balance in the NNI are the continued operation of the interagency coordination mechanisms and access to effective advice from members of the R&D community who have specific expertise to address technical areas and cross-disciplinary issues in nanoscale science and technology.
The committee notes that sustaining the capacity for U.S. science and technology advances into the future means not just providing financial support for NNI R&D but also ensuring a robust R&D infrastructure, broadly defined. Currently the NNI supports research that provides graduate students in the United States access to world-class education and research training opportunities, thereby contributing to the development of a workforce with skills for the 21st century. Throughout its study the committee heard of research from around the world that is important to U.S. efforts to meet the goals of the NNI, and it is widely recognized that in the United States visiting and domiciled foreign-born researchers and students are key contributors to all science and engineering fields. Their scientific knowledge and technical expertise contribute substantially to stimulating innovation, to this country’s significant benefit. Continuing to attract the world’s best students and researchers interested in nanotechnology will depend partly on how policies and the implementation of legal frameworks, such as immigration law and export control law, help or hinder international collaboration. The committee believes an important role of the NNI involves articulating to the NNI-participating federal agencies, to other relevant branches of the federal government, and to the U.S. Congress the importance of (1) maintaining the openness of the U.S. R&D enterprise to global partnerships and (2) ensuring the development of a high-quality U.S. science and technology workforce regardless of national origins. The U.S. visa system and the export control and licensing system can be supportive of, rather than barriers to, R&D, especially university-based and precompetitive research.
Recommendation. In view of the NNI’s evident progress toward developing a framework essential to maintaining and enhancing the nation’s competitive position in nanoscale science and technology, the committee recommends that the federal government sustain investments in a manner that balances the pursuit of shorter-term goals with support for longer-term R&D and that ensures a robust supporting infrastructure,
broadly defined. Supporting long-term research effectively will require making new funds available that do not come at the expense of much-needed ongoing investment in U.S. physical sciences and engineering research.
Ensuring Access to Relevant Scientific Advice
The committee found that although the federal agencies each have internal mechanisms for soliciting and being guided by scientific advice, the NNI as a program does not have the benefit of access to an independent standing technical advisory panel with operational experience in research management and nanoscale R&D. Because of its size and scope, the NNI merits a dedicated and effective advisory panel well positioned to provide advice on (1) prioritizing support for short- and long-term research, (2) balancing the allocation of resources for large-scale centers and individual-investigator-led projects, and (3) giving expert opinions on the value of high-risk but high-pay-off research requiring interdisciplinary expertise.
The designation in 2004 of PCAST—the nation’s preeminent committee of science advisors to the government—as the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel was a welcome testament to the NNI’s importance to the country. However, as discussed in more detail in Chapter 1, there is an ongoing national need for an independent panel of scientific and technical advisors whose experience includes, for instance, operational expertise specific to nanotechnology and nanoscience. Such an advisory panel would be available to provide advice to PCAST, NSET, and NNCO. The many advisory committees established across the federal government that operate under the Federal Advisory Committee Act provide multiple successful models for emulation in establishing this nanoscale-focused advisory resource.
Recommendation. So that a source of independent expert advice on nanoscience and nanotechnology is readily available to the NSET Subcommittee, the NNCO, and PCAST, the committee recommends that the federal government establish an independent advisory panel with specific operational expertise in nanoscale science and engineering; management of research centers, facilities, and partnerships; and interdisciplinary collaboration to facilitate cutting-edge research on and effective and responsible development of nanotechnology.
Satisfying the Need for More Data as a Basis for Prioritizing Investment and Measuring Impact
As is emphasized in Chapter 3, the committee found that U.S. federal investments in nanotechnology are not tracked and reported in a consistent way. Descrip-
tions of funding requests, authorizations, budgets, and expenditures are neither uniform nor consistent across agencies. The dearth of data limits any analysis of the economic impact of the NNI or activity such as technology transfer. The committee recognizes that the budget preparation process within an agency is complex and differs widely from agency to agency. But as the complexity and the magnitude of the NNI grow, it is important that the nation have the ability to evaluate its investments in nanotechnology and to analyze how the return on those investments aligns with stated goals.
More consistent reporting across all agencies will lead to better determination of priorities for nanoscale-related funding. Properly constituted, an NNI advisory panel would be well positioned to oversee and advise on this process. The present PCA framework is a good one within which to conduct a comparative analysis of year-to-year budget requests and expenditures agency by agency, and PCA by PCA. For the larger federal agencies, further intra-agency breakdowns are naturally necessary.
Developing new indicators of and methodologies for assessing economic impact will have to be studied if future assessments are to be more quantitative rather than qualitative. The NSET Subcommittee co-chairs should make a priority of determining how to establish a foundation of data to aid policy and decision makers in future analyses. The methodology for any evaluation of economic impact might include, for example, best-effort evaluations of innovations in existing and new companies that have led to new products and new industrial processes. Although these efforts toward commercialization of nanotechnology are in their early stages, it is important to initiate now the development of indicators for these activities and, looking forward, to maintain databases on the relevant commercial activities, and on technology transfer from R&D into commercial application, over the life of the NNI.
Recommendation. To build a capability for assessing the contribution of NNI investments to individual agencies’ strategic goals and the broader goals of the NNI itself, the committee recommends that the federal agencies participating in the NNI, in consultation with the NNCO and the Office of Management and Budget, continue to develop and enhance means for consistent tracking and reporting of funds requested, authorized, and expended annually. The current set of PCAs provides an appropriate initial template for such tracking.
Recommendation. To establish a basis for assessing the NNI’s economic impact over time, the committee recommends that, as an initial step, the NSET Subcommittee carry out or commission a study on the feasibility of developing metrics to quantify
the return to the U.S. economy from the federal investment in nanotechnology R&D. The study should draw on the Department of Commerce’s expertise in economic analysis and its existing ability to poll U.S. industry. Among the activities for which metrics should be developed and relevant data collected are technology transfer and commercial development of nanotechnology.
Educating a 21st-Century Workforce
The committee found that the four existing NNI working groups, despite their considerable accomplishments, have not been able to bring a high level of coordination or management to the NNI goal of developing educational resources and a skilled workforce to support advances in nanotechnology. Representatives of corporations interviewed for this study indicated to the committee that workers with interdisciplinary skills and expertise are what companies involved in nanotechnology R&D are looking for. Satisfying these workforce needs will require a new approach to science and engineering education and training.
It is clear that nanotechnology is exciting K-12 students’ interest in science, and this trend should be nurtured. Several workshops held under the auspices of the NNI have addressed the importance of incorporating new knowledge from nanoscale R&D into courses of study and workforce development. As new participants in the NNI, the Department of Education and the Department of Labor could help frame and prioritize related issues in and challenges posed for K-12 education and the nation’s workforce. An education working group within the NSET Subcommittee could identify opportunities for agency and interagency activities and initiatives to strengthen the education of the 21st-century workforce. This new approach would complement ongoing work in education by science and technology agencies whose mission integrates educational objectives with research support, such as the National Science Foundation.
Recommendation. Given that interest in nanotechnology presents a significant opportunity to stimulate renewed involvement in science and technology education and thereby strengthen the nation’s workforce, the committee recommends that the NSET Subcommittee create a working group on education and the workforce that engages the Department of Education and the Department of Labor as active participants.
Ensuring Responsible Development of Nanotechnologies—Expanding Research on Environmental, Health, and Safety Effects
According to the NSET Subcommittee, the societal dimensions of the responsible development of nanotechnology encompass (1) research to characterize environmental, health, and safety (EHS) impacts of the development of nanotechnology and assessment of associated risks; (2) education-related activities such as development of materials for schools and undergraduate programs, technical training, and public outreach; and (3) research directed at identifying and quantifying the broad implications of nanotechnology for society, including social, economic, workforce, educational, ethical, and legal implications.10
The committee’s analysis of responsible development focused on current EHS research (see the section “Environmental Health and Safety” and its subsection “The Current State of Published EHS Research” in Chapter 4 for details). The committee found that the results of EHS research to date and data on the EHS impacts of nanotechnology are inconclusive, and that risk assessment protocols have to be further developed and more research has to be done to assess the potential for EHS hazards from nanomaterials.
Although there is some evidence that engineered nanomaterials can have adverse effects on the health of laboratory animals, a lack of well-defined controls in experiments attempting to characterize nanomaterials and their effects and a lack of in vitro and in vivo studies contribute to the ambiguity of available data on EHS impacts of nanotechnology development. Obtaining valid EHS data will require an expanded research effort to support the important continuing dialog on these issues. Reproducible and well-characterized EHS data will inform the development of rigorous risk-based guidelines and best practices, but until that information becomes available, it is prudent to employ some precautionary measures to protect the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment.
The committee notes that the NNI’s NEHI working group has provided opportunities for exchange of information among agencies that support nanotechnology research and/or those responsible for regulation and guidelines related to nanoproducts and has helped to facilitate the identification, prioritization, and implementation of research and other activities required for the responsible development of nanotechnology.
Recommendation. To help ensure the responsible development of nanotechnology, the committee recommends that research on the environmental, health, and safety effects of nanotechnology be expanded. Assessing the effects of engineered nanomaterials on public health and the environment requires that the research conducted be well defined and reproducible and that effective methods be developed and applied to (1) estimate
the exposure of humans, wildlife, and other ecological receptors to source material; (2) assess effects on human health and ecosystems of both occupational and environmental exposure; and (3) characterize, assess, and manage the risks associated with exposure.
Addressing the ethical and social impacts of nanotechnology will require an integrated approach involving scientists, engineers, social scientists, toxicologists, policymakers, and the public. The engagement and participation of the public are also necessary components of a national effort to ensure responsible development of nanotechnology.
Is Molecular Self-Assembly Feasible for Manufacturing?
Based on its examination of current manufacturing processes, the committee concluded that molecular self-assembly is feasible for the manufacture of simple materials and devices. However, for the manufacture of more sophisticated materials and devices, including complex objects produced in large quantities, it is unlikely that simple self-assembly processes will yield the desired results. The reason is that the probability of an error occurring at some point in the process will increase with the complexity of the system and the number of parts that must interoperate. In Chapter 5 the committee discusses lithography and nanobiotechnology as two areas relevant to so-called bottom-up or molecular manufacturing.
Biological systems, ranging in complexity from ribosomes, to viruses, to bacteria, to complex eukaryotic organisms, have been characterized as nature’s perfect machinery. Demonstrations that biological systems can be engineered to operate outside a living cell and in alternate configurations suggest the possibility of a potential model for future manufacturing systems. However, it is difficult to reliably predict the attainable range of chemical reaction cycles, error rates, speed of operation, and thermodynamic efficiencies of such bottom-up manufacturing systems. Although theoretical thermodynamic efficiencies have been calculated for such systems, the committee did not learn of verifiable results of experimentation that would support reliable prediction of the feasibility of such systems for use in manufacturing. Experimentation leading to demonstrations supplying ground truth for abstract models is appropriate to better characterize the potential for use of bottom-up or molecular manufacturing systems that utilize processes more complex than self-assembly.
1. Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology Subcommittee, Committee on Technology, National Science and Technology Council. 2005. The National Nanotechnology Initiative: Research and Development Leading to a Revolution in Technology and Industry. Supplement to the President’s FY 2006 Budget Request. March. See the subsection “Federal Support for NNI R&D” in Chapter 1 for more information on the budget and the agencies involved.
2. Executive Order 13349 was signed on July 23, 2004, to designate PCAST to serve as the NNAP.
4. The PCAs are (1) fundamental nanoscale phenomena and processes; (2) nanomaterials; (3) nanoscale devices and systems; (4) instrumentation research, metrology, and standards for nanotechnology; (5) nanomanufacturing; (6) major research facilities and instrumentation acquisition; and (7) societal dimensions.
5. See the subsections “Establishment of Working Groups and Other Mechanisms for Coordination, Communication, and Outreach,” “Solicitation of New Inter- and Intra-agency Collaborative Research,” and “Investment in Centers and Networks for Multidisciplinary Nanoscale R&D” in Chapter 1 for details.
6. See http://www.nnin.org/, accessed June 2006.
7. See http://www.science.doe.gov/Sub/Newsroom/News_Releases/DOE-SC/2006/nano/index.htm, accessed June 2006.
8. M.C. Roco, NSET/NSF, presentation to this committee, June 27, 2005.
9. In 2003, the United States had 5,228 nanotechnology U.S. patents awarded, as compared to Japan (926), Germany (684), Canada (244), and France (183). U.S.-based entities accounted for about 67 percent of nanotechnology patents recorded in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database during the years 1976 to 2003.
10. Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology Subcommittee, Committee on Technology, National Science and Technology Council. 2005. The National Nanotechnology Initiative: Research and Development Leading to a Revolution in Technology and Industry. Supplement to the President’s FY 2006 Budget Request. March.