December 09, 2010

NNI At 10: Where Next?

By: by Gwyneth K. Shaw, New Haven Independent


The National Nanotechnology Initiative is celebrating its 10th anniversary, with a big conference in Washington that starts Thursday and a flurry of movement aimed at setting the pace for the next decade and beyond.

Since its inception, the initiative, proposed by President Clinton, has spent more than $14 billion, mostly on research across the government. In the past decade, nanotechnology has begun to move out of the laboratory and into products.

More than 1,000 products that use nanotechnology-based on micro-particles that have super properties-are currently on the market, according to the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The inventory includes everything from superconductors to luggage.

But as with all anniversaries, this one begs the obvious question: how effective has the NNI, as it's known, been? And where should the government be spending its resources moving forward?

Nanotechnology-basically the science of really small stuff-has been making the leap toward commercialization. With that shift, however, comes risk, and there's plenty we still don't know about most of these new materials. For the NNI to stay relevant, they said, it has to change.

"There's still an awful lot of hype coming out of that group, and I have mixed feelings about the initiative," said Andrew Maynard, director of the University of Michigan's Risk Science Center.

Maynard worked with the NNI for a few years. He said that while the NNI has helped "set the pace" for nanotechnology internationally, there have been missed opportunities too. Mostly, he said, they're in the area of public engagement about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology.

The NNI, and the federal government, haven't been a good source of basic information about nanotechnology, Maynard said. When the average person wants to figure out what's going on, he said, "there is absolutely nothing coming from the federal government on that level."

There's also the specter that hangs over all conversations about nanotechnology: the potential for safety and environmental concerns. More than a decade in, U.S. regulatory agencies are just beginning to take major steps toward regulating nanomaterials, even as scientists find more reasons to be cautious.

The NNI has funded major centers at universities across the country to study the societal impact of nanotechnology, and also pushed money into federal agencies such as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which just released draft guidelines for workplace safety and carbon nanotubes.

Philip Shapira, a professor at Georgia Tech's School of Public Policy, has been tracking research on nanotechnology, in the U.S. and around the world. He said that there has been an uptick in research on safety, although that work has a hard time reaching other fields within nanotechnology.
"Just adding more funding into nano (safety) probably wouldn't solve that," he said.

Where the NNI has been a true catalyst is in the area of pushing nanotechnology, Maynard said, although he's outspoken about his concerns that nano has been "branded" by proponents, leaving little room for discussion about potential downsides.

But Michael Fancher, Vice President for Business Development and Economic Outreach at the University at Albany-SUNY's College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering, said the initiative's work has been invaluable. Without the NNI making nano a priority, he said, the state of New York would not have responded with its own trailblazing funding.

The CNES campus is home to a consortium of academic and industrial collaborations, Fancher said, made possible by early efforts to seize on the new field.

"I would say NNI primed the pump by supporting the funding for fundamental research," Fancher said. "But the time now, 10 years later, is the time to convert the investment in that funded research over the next 10 years into commercialization."

In other words, said Fancher, it's time to move "from the lab to the fab," or fabrication facilities.

For example, smartphones-which use a lot of nano-based components, from tiny processors to mini-cameras-have revolutionized communications, Fancher said.

"Nanotechnology was able to bring that GPS chip down to $2.50," he said. "Nanotechnology brought the cost of that camera down to about $3."

It's important that other industries begin to use nanotechnology to get that kind of payoff, he said.

When the NNI's opening salvo in 2001 called nanotechnology "the next industrial revolution," Fancher said, it had an impact. Now, the government needs to shift more of its research funding toward applications for these materials, he said.

Shapira has found that there has been a shift over the past five years from "passive" applications for nanomaterials, such as computer chips, into more "active" applications.

One example of that, he said, could be building a system that uses complete "nanosystems" to attack tumors. The nanoparticles might exit the body as part of the process, or at the very least change in some way.

What's remarkable about nanotechnology research, Shapira said, is that it's everywhere in the academic world.

"Even if you look at art conservation, you will find papers dealing with issues at the nanoscale," he said.

There are trends within the piles of papers: the U.S. remains a leading force, and its scholars produce research that's cited frequently by other scientists, a key indicator of work that's considered both sound and relevant. But China is zooming into prominence as well, and with its commercial prowess, could pose a challenge, Shapira said.

Fancher said that's a concern of his, too.

"I think we're on the beginning of a transformational growth, and if our federal government doesn't adjust, we will miss out on this," he said.

The federal government's current fiscal pickle may present some obstacles to that adjustment. President Obama's budget request for the 2011 fiscal year marked the first time in the NNI's history that it didn't see a funding increase.

It could be, Shapira said, that the NNI "has peaked in terms of funding," and that industry may need to fill in the gaps.

"The days of rapid growth are probably over at this point, at least for the next period of time, so the challenge becomes how to use those resources more effectively," he said.