Global advances in medicine, food, water, energy, microelectronics, communications, defense, and other important sectors of the economy are increasingly driven by discoveries in nanoscience and the development of nanotechnologies and justify a continued focus by the United States on, and investments in, these ﬁelds. To cite just one topical example, the recently launched National Quantum Initiative (NQI), which seeks to advance emerging quantum computing, quantum sensing, and quantum communication technologies with the potential to transform large sectors of the economy and national security, is a direct result of previous U.S. investments in nanoscience and nanotechnology, largely motivated by the research efforts of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Other nations such as China, Japan, and the European Union have also made large investments in nanoscience and nanotechnology, resulting in an accelerating pace of education and workforce training and translational research and development (R&D) efforts related to nanoscience and nanotechnology. In some cases, these are outpacing and outperforming U.S. federal government investments. The gap between the top competitors has been closing, per many metrics, such as annual numbers of publications and patents, investment in R&D, and number of scientists publishing in nanotechnology. It is troubling that, by almost all of these metrics, the United States is now trailing several other nations and regions.1
1 Task Force on American Innovation, 2019, Second Place America? Increasing Challenges to U.S. Scientiﬁc Leadership, http://www.innovationtaskforce.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Benchmarks2019-SPA-Final4.pdf.
Given these concerns about national competitiveness, and with the priority placed on economic prosperity, the health of U.S. citizens, and national security in considering the future of the NNI, the committee recommendations arising from this quadrennial NNI review should provide a framework for an urgent redesign of the NNI and its coordination with the goal of achieving a U.S. resurgence in nanotechnology. Going forward, the NNI should be restructured to (1) improve its alignment with the stated national priorities for R&D, (2) broaden its work to accelerate technology transfer to relevant markets, (3) strengthen state-of-the-art enabling R&D infrastructure, and (4) expand domestic workforce education and training. Engaging the nanoscience and technology community in the crafting of some national priorities, developing novel approaches for translating fundamental discovery to a technology readiness level appropriate for venture/industry funding, increasing domestic student interest in nanoscience to expand the workforce pipeline, and exploring new ways of coordinating the NNI work going forward are all imperatives if the United States is to fully reap the societal beneﬁts of nanotechnology.
The highest priority of this report is to provide recommendations that will restore the United States to the global forefront of nanotechnology-enabled advances in electronics, health care, clean energy production and storage, food production, and clean water and air, and to contribute to the robust defense of U.S. national security interests.
IMPACTS OF THE NNI TO DATE
The NNI is widely viewed nationally and globally as a highly successful crossdisciplinary and interagency coordination effort—arguably the best modern example of such an effort in the United States.2 The committee is deeply impressed with the tangible outcomes that have emerged from these coordination efforts. The committee notes in particular that the NNI has supported advances in materials science, novel device designs, and new manufacturing processes that have been essential to the recent formation of the NQI, which is structured with operating principles similar to those of the NNI.3
The goals of the NNI (unchanged since its proposal in 2000) are as follows:
2 For an overview of the structure and operating principles of the NNI, see Chapter 1 of National Research Council, 2013, Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., https://www.nap.edu/catalog/18271/triennial-review-of-the-national-nanotechnology-initiative.
3 See the NQI bill, H.R.6227-National Quantum Initiative Act, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/6227/text, and related press coverage—for example, from the American Institute of Physics, “National Quantum Initiative Signed into Law,” https://www.aip.org/fyi/2019/national-quantum-initiative-signed-law.
- Advance a world-class nanotechnology R&D program;
- Foster the transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public beneﬁt;
- Develop and sustain educational resources, a skilled workforce, and a dynamic infrastructure and toolset to advance nanotechnology; and
- Support responsible development of nanotechnology.
The committee strongly supports these well-crafted goals. However, this review ﬁnds that not all the goals have received adequate attention, investment, or coordinated effort. The NNI performed exceptionally well on Goal 1 in the ﬁrst 10-12 years of its existence, although success in delivering “world-class” R&D is now being challenged unambiguously by robust efforts in many other countries and regions. The NNI has delivered a smaller set of activities, outcomes, and impacts related to Goal 2, and arguably has not been as strongly competitive globally as it was for Goal 1. Similarly, the NNI has not developed a national strategy to develop the appropriate workforce to address Goal 3, although it has certainly contributed some expanded opportunities for nanotechnology workforce training. As foreign and domestically trained scientists and engineers increasingly ﬁnd work in other nations and regions, the United States is confronted with a serious shortage of skilled researchers and technical staff, just as it enters an era of intensiﬁed global competition in nanotechnology. That said, the NNI has succeeded in establishing the necessary nanoscience and nanotechnology infrastructure (i.e., world-class tooling and laboratory facilities), which must now be maintained and expanded going forward. Last, on Goal 4 the committee considers that the NNI has performed exceptionally well and is recognized internationally for its leadership in responsible nanotechnology development and for leveraging international collaborations, although agency engagement appears to be waning.
The committee was uniﬁed in a positive assessment of the value of the NNI to the U.S. economy, but developed a serious concern that the recent, focused, and in some cases novel commercialization approaches of other nations may be yielding better societal outcomes. The committee therefore considered whether the nanotechnology effort could be organized in more effective ways to accelerate the transition of nanotechnology discoveries to the higher technology readiness levels that bring societal beneﬁts.
Given this uneven performance and the apparent threats to economic prosperity and national security by a loss of nanotechnology leadership, the committee believes the NNI should be refocused, with the overall vision of the initiative to be as follows:
Creation of innovative mechanisms to realize the transformational societal beneﬁts that ﬂow from faster commercialization of nanotechnologies while reestablishing scientiﬁc
leadership through aggressive, strategic investment in basic nanoscience R&D, improved infrastructure, and expanded education and training necessary to fuel future expansions in foundational knowledge and technological revolutions.
While the committee does not advocate for any speciﬁc commercialization model (which is a responsibility of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Ofﬁce [NNCO] and Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology [NSET], and our elected representatives), it has observed that Europe’s Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC) and Micro and Nanotechnology Innovation Campus (MINATEC), Japan’s Tsukuba Innovation Area, and China’s Nanopolis are examples of directed, at-scale, commercialization efforts. Each of these is better positioned than the current U.S. effort to reap the rewards of nanoscience and technology R&D. The committee believes that for U.S.-developed nanotechnology to compete in the current hypercompetitive era,4 the United States must rethink the entirety of its policy/funding/IP framework, within which nanotechnology knowledge is created, innovation is protected, and products are developed/commercialized by industry. The committee was encouraged by the NNCO’s recognition of this challenge, and its formation of a platform to strengthen the link between nanotechnology and a commercialization path in the form of the Nanotechnology Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), launched in late 2019. This emerging network provides a forum for sharing best practices for advancing nanotechnology commercialization and the lessons learned along the technology development pathway. While current activities include a monthly podcast series, webinars, workshops, and town hall discussions, the committee remains concerned that these efforts will be insufﬁcient in the current hypercompetitive environment for nanoscience and technology.
A VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF THE NNI
Carrying out this vision will require setting priorities and goals. The committee identiﬁes three such priorities:
4 See, for example, Statement of E.W. Priestap, Assistant Director, Counterintelligence Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Before the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, “Hearing Concerning China’s Non-Traditional Espionage Against the United States: The Threat and Potential Policy Responses,” presented December 5, 2018, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/12-12-18%20Priestap%20Testimony.pdf.
Last, the following ﬁve key recommendations, if implemented, will provide the actions needed to meet these priorities and carry out this vision.